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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review

A View From The Roof

The American premiere of Dave Carley's play A View From the Roof, adapted from four short stories by a fellow Canadian writer, Helen Weinzweig, reminded me of an e.e. cummings' poem:
along the brittle treacherous bright streets
of memory comes my heart, ...
whispering like a drunken man
who (at a certain corner, suddenly) meets
the tall policeman of my mind.

Carley's central character is a Toronto business man named Mulgrave (Charles Stransky). He is old (mid-sixtyish) and successful enough to be writing his memoir. The "tall policeman" of his mind has so fractured his memory that he feels driven to re-live it, but in a manner more emotionally palatable than its reality. And so he hires two your actors, Henry (Cody Nickell) and Helga (Ann Bates) to recreate the scenario he has written on a 1930s farmhouse set he has had erected in the parking lot of his office building. Trouble is that as the actors improvise on the script with Mulgrave's binoculars trained on them from his office the "drunken man" clashes with "the tall policeman" and his true past begins to sink in and overwhelm him.

The memoir as orchestrated by Mulgrave, (titled "The Man Without Memories - Toronto 1975" ), is the axis on which the three ensuing pieces revolve. They move forward and backward in time, from realism to surrealism. Besides Mulgrave and the two young actors, the set-up story features a secretary (Karen Murphy) to lend comic relief. From the parking lot farmhouse it's on to 1985 and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Mulgrave is now a psychiatrist and his secretary, Miss Perry, his bored wife who flirts dangerously with an anti-Semitic, self-serving artist (the second of two parts played by Cody Nickell). As we're still trying to figure out the connection between the couple in the 1930s farmhouse and the San Juan episode's characters, it's back to 1931 and Toronto and a story titled "My Mother's Luck." Lizbeth Mackay as the poor, work-weary mother of a sixteen-year-old daughter (also played by Anne Bates) is about to ship her off to her wealthy Jewish father in prewar Germany presumably to have a better life.

The stylistic conceit of the man with the binoculars recreating his own hidden past and, as self-censored memories emerge, speculating on the consequences of certain decisions makes for a play that's a workout for the audience. If the pieces of the jigsaw haven't fallen into place for you by the intermission, not to worry. The post-intermission "The Bridge of Sighs - Venice 1938-39" puts all the pieces together. This tale of two young lovers caught in a "last train from Berlin" situation is also the best. Unlike the earlier stories, this one is less concerned with stylistic innovation than with capturing the desperation and emotions of people caught up in a historic event that needs no structural gimmickry to engage our emotions. While the first part of this new play engaged my attention as a puzzle, it's only the fourth piece that touched me emotionally.

Ms. Boyd, whose work both as Barrington Stage's artistic director and hand-on directing I admire enormously, has made some questionable choices which exacerbate View's weaknesses. With the exception of Cody Nickell and Anne Bates the actors she's assembled simply aren't up up to the demands of their multiple parts. Charles Stransky is too much a cipher, both as Mulgrave and Bernie. Lizbeth Mackay, the only actor with just one role, has a monologue that is allowed to go on to the point of tedium. With Mr. Carley on hand while the play was being mounted, his permission should have been sought to trim this to a less unendurable length.

A note about the projections is also in order. The use of screen projected images has enhanced many a recent theatrical endeavor but this is a craft that demands expertise. Instead of enhancing the spare sets, the on-screen images here somehow underscore the gimmickry of the artificially re-invented past.

I think this production would also work better in a smaller more intimate space. Perhaps that will be the case when it moves to the Orpheum Theatre which I understand is a smaller venue.

Not having read the Weinzweig stories which inspired this play, it's hard to explain just where this potentially moving and fascinating play lost its heart. Its themes -- lives torn asunder by history, the effect of timing and luck on survival under duress, survivor guilt and suppressed memories -- are never trivial and always worth examining. Since these stories are said to have autobiographical elements, perhaps they can't be filtered through the eyes of another writer without being as fractured as Mulgrave's memories.

By Dave Carley based on the stories of Helen Weinzweig
Directed by Julianne Boyd
Starring: Cody Nickell, Karen Murphy, Charles Stransky, Anne Bates and LizbethMackay
Sets: Steven Capone
Lighting: Deborah Constantine
Costumes: Peg Carbonneau
Sound: Bruce Ellman
Co-production Barrington Stage/ Orpheum Theatre-Foxboro,
Consolati Performing Arts Center
Sheffield, MA (413/528-8888)
8/12/98-8/30/98; opening 8/15/98
Reviewed 8/17/98 by Elyse Sommer
The play will move to the 450-seat Orpheum Theatre in Foxborough, MA 9/16/98

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