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A CurtainUp  Berkshire Review
Best Kept Secret

A Dangerous Liaison in the Cold War

I wish I could make you well -- Andrei
I wish I could make you free -- Katya

Katharine Houghton
Anthony Newfield
(Photo: Richard Feldman)
I wish I could tell you that this secret makes for the innovative, cutting edge experience we've come to expect from the Berkshire Theatre Festival's second stage, the Unicorn! (With the added kick of watching acting students who might just be tomorrow's stars).

Unless you accept a play as cutting edge because its set makes no pretense at realism, Katharine Houghton's autobiographical play, hardly qualifies as avant-garde. On the contrary, it is very much an old-fashioned star-crossed love story about an American woman and a Russian engineer. That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially since Ms. Houghton, who co-stars in her own play, has an interesting and often touching story to tell. It's a cross between A. R. Gurney's Love Letters and William Nicholson's Shadowlands, with the background of the Cold War plus new post Cold War travails to flavor the extended and often epistolary romance with historic relevance.

The two-hander is told chronologically, with the American Katya (Houghton ) cutting back and forth between her scenes with Andrei (Anthony Newfield) and addressing the audience as narrator of her own story. Katya and Andrei first meet in 1963 in the Soviet seaside resort town of Yalta where the nineteen-year-old philosophy student has come determined to find her independence despite a mysterious crippling ailment. Andrei an engineering student from Siberia with a good command of English asks a friend to introduce them so he can discuss politics and philosophy with her. While there is an instant and obvious attraction, they do indeed do plenty of talking -- some of their sparring is sharp and amusing, but much of it is, what can I say, too talky.

After one brief embrace, Katya goes back to America and Andrei to his home in Siberia. She becomes an actress, he a professor and avid member of a Polar Bear swimming club. But the talk, and the bond forged between them continues via a thirteen year correspondence, and endures through fourteen years during which there is no communication. By the time they meet again, they are middle-aged.

It would be bad form to give too much away. Suffice it to say that this is a love story of ups and downs, of passion and caution. It is not a fairy tale!

The already mentioned talkiness aside, there are enough moments when the blend of humor and poignancy turns debate into genuine emotion. The scene in which Katya and Andrei are on the verge of fully realizing the relationship so long denied to them is particularly moving, as is a less happy encounter when Andrei tries to bridge the problems in their relationship with distressing machismo.

Mr. Newfield's nuanced portrayal of Andrei adds immeasurably to these scenes and the play as a whole. He is charming, sad and infuriating. Having spent six months in Moscow, where he studied and worked at the Moscow Art Theater, he also brings an authentic accent to his role. Ms. Houghton displays less emotional range and assured line delivery. It's also a big stretch to accept the girl who brought Sidney Poitier home to dinner in the 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner as a nineteen year old. (A note for trivia fans: Her film mother was played by her famous aunt, Katharine Hepburn and her father by Spencer Tracy -- with whom Hepburn had her own drawn out and difficult relationship.)

Director John Going has not yet overcome the play's sense of being a staged reading. Alexander Dodge has dutifully followed Ms. Houghton's directions for an abstract set of steps, arches and cubes to suggest verandas, bedrooms, kitchens, etc. These often broken and dully tan arches and railings aptly suggest the lack of amenities in Russia and the imagination easily fills in the missing realistic elements. Unfortunately, while the set is intended to make time and place changes more fluid, it is in fact a cumbersome arrangement with the actors' movements, especially Ms. Houghton's, the very opposite of fluid.

With its awkward staging and just two actors, Katya and Andrei's story often feels like their real time thirty year journey, making this "Best Kept Secret" a liaison dangerously prone to attention lapses.

BEST KEPT SECRET-- A Dangerous Liaison In the Cold War
Written by Katharine Houghton
Directed by John Going
Cast: Katharine Houghton and Anthony Newfield
Set Design: Alexander Dodge
Lighting Design: Colin Bills
Costume Design: David Toser
Sound Design: Denise Eberly
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA, (413) 298-3868
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission
6/16/2000-7/01/2000; opening 6/17/2000
For season's schedule go here

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 6/17 performance

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