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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

A Really Good Holiday Ends Badly

Also see Bob's review of Uncle Vanya

For most of its length, Greek Holiday, the world premiere play by Mayo Simon, whose career as a playwright extends back to the golden age of television drama, provides an imaginative, humorous and, even more so, excoriating evening of solid theatre. Unfortunately, in its final moments, the play wantonly veers wildly off the track, sending the viewer home confused and dissatisfied.

Timothy McCracken and Sarah Knapp
The action of the play unfolds over the seven days of a working vacation for Alex and his wife, Debra, on an island in the Ionian Sea. There is an extended flashback at the beginning of the second act to a passionate tryst that Alex had six months earlier with Janet, his first and thus far only digression from the straight and narrow path. Alex and Debra subsist on Alex's paltry and irregular earnings as a paid per article writer on bargain travel. Debra has worked to supplement their income, but she is recuperating from a nervous breakdown attributable at least in part to Alex's unfaithfulness.

Initially, five brief scenes provide glimpses of each of the first five days of their vacation. Each scene is marked by the return of Alex to their room where Debra has holed up, depressed and filled with venom. Alex is full of enthusiasm for the time which he has just spent in one or another locale on the island and unfailingly (but failingly) tries to charm Debra out of the room and gloom. Each of these scenes ends with the fantasy murder of one or the other, as imagined by his or her spouse.

An extended scene of the sixth vacation day is the centerpiece and conclusion of the first act. As Debra ostensibly prepares to go out to the beach cove with Alex all their animosities pour out. The scene and act conclude with Alex imagining Janet presenting herself erotically before him. This is a logical ending for the first act, but somehow as presented here, it is off-putting (possibly because we are still formulating the fantasy nature of her appearance as the act ends).

There is much texture and subtext in the dialogue. The scenes played out here mirror the abrasiveness and conflict which occur in the course of many marriages, including largely successful ones. The play is written from a male point of view. Many, and not only women, will likely take offense at Simon's depiction of his protagonists. It feels not as if Debra's bitterness is the result of Alex's indiscretion, but that the latter is the result of her bitter personality. Possibly, this is because we do not explicitly find out about Alex's affair with Janet until the fifth scene. Despite his affair, Alex is depicted as more sinned against than sinning.

However, for me, any such objections are outweighed by the interesting construction, rich subtext, humor, passion and verisimilitude which Simon places before us.

The scene involving Alex and Janet also has a feel of authenticity, although author Simon only allows one specific lapse in her behavior to spare us from the portrayal of Janet as the stereotypical Jewish lad's dream of the perfect "shiksa" (gentile female). In the next scene, there is a moving moment when Debra finally warms to Alex's blandishments shortly after she seems to have killed whatever remaining feeling he has had for her.

The play concludes with scenes of vacation day seven and the getaway day. Ultimately, these scenes are overly tricky (the same device of having one character enter alone while we contemplate the fate of the other is repeated twice), and the line between reality and fantasy becomes so blurred that we no longer know what is real and what is not. What appears to be the final ending is unrealistic. Or is it meant to be a delusional fantasy a la Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard? I'll be damned if I know. And neither did any of several people whom I discussed the matter with after the final curtain. After all the trickery, I wonder how many audiences will still care. Ambiguity has its value, but what viewers are left with here is confusion and betrayal of their commitment to the work. As this is a new work, it is not possible to accurately judge how much, if any, of the fault is attributable to director Stephen Hollis.

For this very solid production, kudos are certainly due to Hollis, his excellent cast and the production assembled here by the Playwrights Theatre which is dedicated to the development of new plays.

Timothy McCracken is totally convincing, finding in his Alex an unaware self centeredness that may or may not be a part of Simon's subtext. Sarah Knapp is equally believable and ably conveys the bitter and mentally shaken Debra while retaining sympathy. Her performance in the penultimate scene portrays a descent that is chilling. Melissa Grey is on target as Janet, displaying an inherent coldness that is most appropriate. Sexual passion does not necessarily a warm person make.

Richard Turick has designed a simple, yet clever set whose walls have a graceful curve suggesting the soft beauty of a vacation island beach setting, and with an open split in the middle to mirror the split between Alex and Debra. It is well lit by Richard Currie, who nicely blends and separates sunlight and artificial light. Bettina Beirly's costumes are always appropriate and are particularly evocative for Debra and Janet.

Despite its flaws, Greek Holiday is highly recommended to anyone interested in a provocative evening in the theatre. Author Mayo Simon is on to something that could be really special, but he has some work to do in order for Greek Holiday to go the distance.

Greek Holiday. Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, 33 Green Village Road, Madison, NJ 07940. Performance schedule through May 18: Thursday, Friday, Saturday Eve. 8 PM / Saturday, Sunday Matinee 3 PM.

Greek Holiday, a new play by Mayo Simon; directed by Stephen Hollis. Cast: Sarah Knapp (Debra); Timothy McCracken (Alex); Melissa Gray (Janet).

Photo: LucyAnn Saltzman

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Bob Rendell

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