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|A CurtainUp Review
A Bad Friend
Though the story of a young Brooklyn girl struggling with the usual coming of age questions during the politically volatile '50s treads familiar territory, it is scented with the perfume of authenticity that comes from an author's tapping into his own memories. The genuineness of Feiffer's recall is abetted by a well-paced, atmospheric production and a cast that brings to life even characters that are less than fully realized or not very credible. Not surprisingly Naomi (Jan Maxell) and Rose (Kala Savage), the characters based on Feiffer's own sister Mimi, an ardent communist, and his own teen-aged self are the most developed and powerful characters and their relationship turns out to be the heart and soul of this enterprise.
Even before the lights dim, the audience is brought face to face with an image of Joseph Stalin projected on three huge screens and recordings of songs such "This Land Is My Land," and "Which Side Are You On" that were cherished by the many partisans of the political left. Screen images also serve to punctuate the play's action, the bits and pieces of pivotal events often segueing to A Bad Friend's fictional family reading about and commenting on the projected headlines. The very first of these torn from the headlines projections is of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg whose spy conviction caused people like Naomi to join protest marches -- and daughter Rose to accompany her because that was the only way to be close to an ardent, one-track minded mother like this (as she wistfully puts it "I've marched with my mother more than I've gone to the movies with her").
To re-visit the experience of growing up in the climate of distrust, fear and suspicion seeded by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as well as the painful post-Stalin disillusionment for his American loyalists, the play has Rose navigating between her home and the nearby Brooklyn Heights Esplanade. Frustration with the constant ideological rantings of her mother and father (Jonathan Hadary) pave the way for a chance acquaintance with a kindly photographer and painter named Emil (Larry Bryggman) to blossom into a sort of father-daughter mentoring friendship. She also has some less friendly encounters with a smarmy gray-suited man (David Harbour) wo's obviously an FBI man snooping into Rose's screen writer uncle's life (Mark Feuerstein) while ignoring a much more clear and present danger.
As this is a play where no one can be taken at face value the surprise "betrayals" are not all as melodramatic as the revelation about Emil's identity and Uncle Morty's stunning HUAC testimony. The most moving scene of betrayal, seen as such only by Naomi, has the mild-mannered Shelly declaring that he's come to believe that had Stalin lived he would have launched Jewish progroms; it also happens to be the most powerful scene of the entire play. Naomi's utter devastation, and Shelly's desperate retraction, is one of those golden theatrical moments that stays with you for a long time.
Since Feiffer has structured A Bad Friend as some three dozen short scenes -- a little like panels in a Feiffer cartoon -- there are few that come close to the dramatic impact of that husband and wife clash In fact, the first act has so many scenes hobbled by speeches rather than dialogue that I found myself paying undue attention to the details of the production -- some wonderful, some annoying. In the wonderful category: William Ivey Long's gray and brown hued costumes straight out of the pages of a '50s fashion magazine (Rose's double breasted gray coat with its attached tie-front belt made me wish I'd saved a similar one I once had). In the annoying category: The way every time Fallon, the creepy FBI guy, appears the lighting turned dark just in case the audience isn't smart enough to see him as a dark and ominous figure.
Fortunately, as I stated at the outset, the less enthralling scenes and the fact that Rose and Naomi are the only fully developed characters are offset by the overall excellence of the performances. Larry Bryggman is especially endearing in the rather vague role of Emil. Maxwell personifies the relentless drive and rage of a mother who can only show her love and delight in having a lovely daughter when the girl is asleep and can't hear her. Savage, makes a most promising New York debut as the girl who yearns for love and affection instead of pamphleteering admonitions. For all the political trappings and talk, the strength of A Bad Friend is not as a political drama but as an endearing picture of the struggle between the forceful mother and the daughter who loves her but has a mind of her own.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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