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Amy Irving Opens in World Premiere Play Celadine

Although Amy Irving is best known for her movie work, she is an experienced and classically trained stage actress who has distinguished herself in a number of stage performances over the past fifteen years. Irving is currently lending her considerable talent and stage presence to the title role in Celadine, the entertaining new play by Charles Evered, currently on view at the George Street Playhouse.

Following the collapse of the Puritan Commonwealth in 1860, a limited monarchy was restored under Charles II. The Restoration period which ensued was a turbulent, complex era which saw the tragedies of the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London of 1666, and the rekindling of religious intolerance. However, under the personally tolerant and lasciviously free-spirited Charles II, theatres were reopened and there was a rebirth of the arts.

There are historical accounts from this period of Aphra Behn, a female playwright who spied for Charles II during the Anglo-Dutch Wars. Although Celadine is a fiction character (Behn is mentioned as a rival in this play), the accounts of Behn supplied inspiration to the playwright.

The time is the 1670s. The setting is a coffee house in London operated by Celadine. Although she remains free-spirited and lustful, Celadine has been emotionally scarred by the death of her young daughter Margaret during a storm at sea. Margaret's portrait hangs over the fireplace in the coffee house, which Celadine operates with the loyal assistance of her maid Mary (Leslie Lyles). Mary is a former prostitute whom Celadine had rescued from death as she laid battered and bleeding in the street. Their new assistant Jeffrey (Rob Eigenbrod) has been mute since the age of 14 when his tongue was cut out for speaking against his church. Jeffrey is a simple, lusty, well endowed, handsome young man, eager to fill any of Celadine's needs.

One visitor to this contented household is a popular actor, Eliot (Matt Pepper). Eliot professes to like the work of Celadine (whose plays have not met with popular success) and wants her to write a new play for him. The other visitor is the enigmatic Rowley (Michael Countryman) who is the father of Celadine's daughter.

In the final scene of the first act, the truth about Rowley is revealed when he asks her to spy for Charles II in order to uncover an assassination plot. Celadine, who has been swept off her feet by Eliot, finds herself in an emotional quandary when it appears that Eliot may not only be a plotter, but that he may be using her to advance the plot.

None of this is meant to be taken very seriously. Everything is blended into a tasty soufflé of a romantic comedy (Evered has aptly described it as a romp) with a lightly poignant undercurrent (think Margaret). The downside is that the spy stuff fails to resonate. The end result being that the play itself feels inconsequential.

Amy Irving is a larger than life, giving the flamboyant star role the grand star performance that it requires. Her panache in delivering the sharp dialogue is not to be missed. Just one example here (to actor Eliot):

Is there anything worse than an actor with an observation?/ ... There is something worse ... that is an actor with an observation that is correct.

When deeply saddened, Irving wordlessly conveys her distress with tremulous body language, tightened lips, and then tightly closed eyelids. If my eyes did not deceive me, even the color drained from her face.

Michael Countryman and Leslie Lyles unveil a most winning pair of comic personas. They play off each other beautifully in contrasting styles. It is a joy when Countryman's noble Rowley banters wittily with Lyles' lower born sarcastically combative Mary.

Matt Pepper is convincing as the handsome young actor who wins over Celadine with his flattery, good looks and passion. His enthusiastic and smooth delivery of his flirting repartee with Celadine is always a pleasure. Rob Eigenbrad is a solid and supple presence even without dialogue.

David Saint has directed with an exuberant light touch, eliciting excellent performances from all hands. Saint effectively employs some lovely music of the period by Henry Purcell.

There is an elaborate set by Michael Anania with much wood and stone, a large fireplace, a dining balcony, alcove, candle chandelier and more. It is most impressive in and of itself. Although I do not doubt that it accurately depicts a coffee house (whatever that term precisely described in the 17th century), it is too heavy and dark for the frivolity of Evered's script.

The costumes by David Murin are attractive and appropriate. As is fitting, Irving's costumes showcase her to great effect.

Playwright Charles Evered developed his play for and with the participation of Irving after she appeared in a short one act he wrote for an evening of plays commemorating the first anniversary of 9/11. It is the third and last of a trilogy of Evered plays whose topic is spies and spying. The first, Wilderness of Mirrors, concerned the recruitment of Ivy League students by a professor-spy master for the OSS and CIA during the Cold War. The second play, Clouds Hill, recently premiered in San Jose. It has been reported to concern the conflict between two liberal arts professors when one comes to believe that a student from the Middle East is attempting to produce chemical weapons.

Celadine is far different in tone from its trilogy predecessors. It appears that for Irving he has written Celadine as an elegant light period comedy, bearing little resemblance to the earlier plays in the trilogy. In fact, Celadine might prove more satisfying if it were not regarded as connected to those other plays so as not to arouse expectations which it is not designed to fulfill. The structure of this 90-minute work is such that it would have been more effective without an intermission.

In David Saint's high gloss, sharply performed production, Celadine delivers a delightful evening of sophisticated comedy, that is both witty and wise.

Celadine continues performances through December 12, 2004 at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Box Office: 732-246-7717; online: Tuesday - Saturday 8 PM (except Thursday, 11/25)/ Sunday 7 PM/ Saturday and Sunday 2 PM (except Saturday, 12/4); Extra performances: Monday 11/22 —8 PM/ Thursday 12/2 —2 PM.

Celadine by Charles Evered; directed by David Saint
Mary .......... Leslie Lyles
Eliot .......... Matt Pepper
Celadine .......... Amy Irving
Jeffrey .......... Rob Eigenbrod
Rowley .......... Michael Countryman

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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