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A CurtainUp Review
By Julia Furay
Bluff opens just as many other plays do these days: with an invocation to the audience to turn off their cell phones and open any unwrapped candies before the show starts. This time, however, it's delivered by cast member Ean Sheehy, who also casually mentions the next show at the theater and then delves into the business of telling us the setup for the first scene and introducing us to his character, Neal. It's a fluid, nonchalant, and very appropriate introduction to this play, written by Jeffrey Sweet for the Victory Gardens and now receiving its New York premiere at the 78th Street Theatre Lab.
That opening instantly alerts us that this is a play that relishes its own metatheatricality. Ostensibly it's is about Neal (Ean Sheehy) and his girlfriend Emily (Sarah Yorra) and their relationship with each other and her family. But both the writing and Sandy Shinner's production reflect that it's also about the theater itself -- breaking not just the fourth wall but inner walls on the stage as well. The characters habitually pipe in to make comments about scenes of which they're not a part. Occasionally they remark about pretend props or whether they even want to be onstage at all. In a venue as cozy as the 78th Street Theatre Lab, this confidence in its own form makes for a very refreshing production.
Sweet's comfy, interactive approach to his story telling makes us pleased that chose to do so as a play but it's the complex, funny characters and dialogue that make you glad he wrote the story at all. The fulcrum here is Emily. She's your usual young New Yorker, but she holds deep wells of anger about her father's death, her mother Georgia's (Kristine Niven) alcoholism, and her stepfather Gene's (Bill Tatum) crassness. However, it takes Gene's arrival to bring all this to the surface.
Emily and Gene's relationship is adversarial from the get-go, with arguments frequently turning into bluffing contests (hence the play's title). This time, Gene's visit is part of a sales trip just after Neal moves in with Emily. Before Gene's arrival the focus is on Emily and Neal's courtship. With his arrival, however, it becomes clear that there's much they haven't t talked about, especially in regards to her family.
Emily is a tough character to like. She turns up her nose at her stepfather's loutishness, but hasn't gone to visit her sad, drunken mother (Kristine Niven) in years. The other characters fare slightly better. Neal, a lawyer, is a little bland, but Gene is at once sleazy and very likeable -- your classic salesman. Georgia seems a bit too poised to be a convincing drunk, though Niven plays up her passiveness and vulnerability. The remaining four characters are split between actors Michelle Best and Luke McCloskey, and each of them adds to the idiosyncratic feel of the piece.
What makes all of them fun to watch, though, is the humorous and clever dialogue Mr. Sweet has written for them. Were it not for this and the script's casual theatricality, Bluff might be a fairly conventional drama. The conflicts here aren't new and nor there are no spellbinding confrontations. Even the final, central "bluff " of the play seems a little hard to buy, as Emily becomes suddenly and inexplicably na´ve about her mother. What makes the drama interesting and unpredictable is Sweet's continually involving writing. The logic in Gene's rant on the plight of movie dentists, for example, is just as hilarious as it is intricate. And when it comes to the meat of the drama, the interaction is equally skillful. and goes hand-in-hand with the script's casual theatricality which Shinner's direction brings out.
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