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A CurtainUp Review

Before Breakfast, Box and Pandora's Box of Sweets
By Les Gutman

The simple numeral that provides the title for this grouping of short plays has three references: three plays, three actresses, three solo turns. As the note from Sanctuary Theatre Workshop's Artistic Director Tony Torn goes on to explain, while each is "radically different," all center on "a woman alone ...each with a silent partner." The women indeed have the first and last words, and all in between, but don't be so sure the male of the species necessarily lacks a voice.

When last we visited with Eugene O'Neill, it was for the first-ever production of The Personal Equation (linked below), a play he wrote while briefly under the tutelage of George Pierce Baker at Harvard in 1915. If that play seemed to have been written by someone other than O'Neill, "Before Breakfast," written the following year, represents the reëmergence of his own voice. That's not to suggest it's some obscure masterpiece, but O'Neillaholics will find this oddball work -- a woman's (Danae Torn) 40 minute monologue aimed at her mostly unseen, lazy, alcoholic, poet husband, Alfred (Tom Pearl) -- fascinating. 

"Before Breakfast" is regarded as Strindbergian, but it also brings to mind Chekhov insofar as it leaves off-stage its most interesting action. Had O'Neill attempted it a generation later, he'd have found a means to dramatize its more substantial core. Had he written it several generations later, we'd be calling it a study in co-dependence. It has been suggested he wrote it as an experiment: testing the limits of an audience's endurance for monologue -- an indulgence he employs devastatingly as he matures.

As it is, the bitter, resentful wife rails against the failings of her marriage even as we see her enable its defects and anesthetize it with a pre-breakfast drink. It takes Alfred, who emits no more than a few grunts from the other room, to end it -- he slits his throat while shaving. Rip Torn directs his daughter effectively, giving her character a comfortably modern sensibility that prompts little sympathy for either spouse. Ms. Torn's performance is well-grounded, alternately spunky and vulnerable, with a simmering current of violence. It maintains our interest, and we certainly endure.

Juliana Francis's "Box" -- a seemingly simplistic nine minute look at the life of a 19 year old Ukrainian girl, Anastasia (Funda Duyal), who works at a "peep show" -- develops into a cumulatively powerful observation on sexual exploiters and their exploiteds. Seated on a stool behind a sheet of Plexiglas, she communicates (quite believably) with a series of three disparate -- and unseen -- customers by means of a telephone. Tony Torn makes a brief appearance as the man who mops the floor, at once separating reality from fantasy and blurring the line between the two.

The presence of the Plexiglas can be referenced immediately to Richard Foreman (with whom almost all involved here have some connection), but its functionality informs us about its significance in a way Foreman never (overtly) does. To the audience, the Plexiglas also reflects a mirror image of the theater's red "Exit" sign -- a bit of perhaps unintended but not insignificant poetry as well. 

The final piece -- Chay Costello's "Pandora's Box of Sweets" -- shows us a woman who seems to solve her "aloneness" issues by surrounding herself with desserts. Sometimes clever and funny, as well as nicely executed by Susan Tierney in the title role, it doesn't really amount to much. Kind of like the best of Costello's one-liners -- "If only it were only the calories that were empty."

For reference, this production is staged in the same space in which we saw Sanctuary's The Picture (see link), although at that time it was called CHA. It's a small, comfortable space -- defiantly downtown despite its Times Square location. There's an art gallery in the lobby, a second stage down the street and even a storefront window that's used alternately (and alternatively) for displays and performances that don't fit the Giuliani vision of the supposedly-sanitized neighborhood.

CurtainUp's review of The Personal Equation
CurtainUp's review of The Picture
by Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Rip Torn
with Danae Torn and Tom Pearl

by Juliana Francis
Directed by Tony Torn
with Funda Dayal and Tony Torn

by Chay Costello
Directed by Tony Torn
with Susan Tierney and Christopher Murphy

Set Design: Tom Glisson ("Before Breakfast"), Gary Wilmes ("Box") and Tony Torn and Anduin Havens "Pandora's Box of Sweets")
Lighting Design: Rick Martin
Sound Design: Wesley McWhorter
Running time:  1 hour, 20 minutes with one intermission 
A production of Sanctuary Theatre Workshop
135, 135 West 42nd Street (Bdwy/6th Av.) (212) 206-7188
Opened 10/4/2000 closes 10/22/2000
Reviewed by Les Gutman 10/8 based on 10/7 performance

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