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LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Review
The Chemistry of Change
Having seen this play and Paula Vogel's Mineola Twins within the space of three days, it's hard not to draw comparisons. Both take us back to the 1950's, but while Vogel moves us forward to the 1980's Ms. Meyer leaves us to imagine what the future holds in store for her characters. Change is, in fact her theme, and love the element of the chemistry that makes change possible.
To take the comparison between these plays a few steps further, both have been smartly directed and cast with actors who make the most of the scripts' snappy dialogue. Consequently both provide an interesting and enjoyable two hours and yet leave you less than completely satisfied. In Ms. Meyer's play this is because of a certain impenetrable oddity of story and characters. Ms Vogel's play while much more grounded in identifiable historical facts, characters and themes disappoints somewhat because much of it covers too familiar territory.
At the center of Chemistry of Love is Lee (Carlin Glynn) the fifty-ish matriarch of the daffiest family to inhabit a stage in a while. The family circle includes two women, Lee's daughter Corliss an aggressively anti-male daughter (Jodi Thelen) and a sister, Dixon (Brenda Wehle), who likes gambling but never wins and sex though she's never found a mate. There are also three sons. Baron the oldest is a drunk (Christopher Innvar), Shep (Hamish Linklater) is a malcontent unable to get out of his pajamas. Eighteen-year-old Farley (Barry Del Sherman) sees marriage and fatherhood as an escape hatch from this ditzy environment, alas, with a woman who's too old for him and a dwarf.
While there is considerable talk about getting jobs, Lee has assumed the role of the family breadwinner thereby keeping everyone in a state of dependency. Her job skills aren't any greater than her family's. She's endowed with the kind of good looks and feminine charms that attract husbands as bread crumbs do pigeons. Those assets might have led to the Hollywood career of her youthful dreams but she has instead chosen to marry well and repeatedly, bankrolling her matriarchal realm with the settlements wrought from these short-lived liaisons. One husband, a doctor, did teach her how to perform abortions as an alternative source of income and it is this "business" in which Corliss assists that keeps food on the table as the play opens.
For all that Lee has convinced herself that she is performing a service for poor, overworked women she realizes the potential for her "good works" landing her in jail (where the two oldest sons have already put in some time). And so, for the good of the family, she is ready to embark on marriage number ten to a wealthy man in the scrap metal business. The family is, as usual, non too pleased, but Lee brushes aside all alternative suggestions.
While the family can't dissuade Lee from her latest matrimonial enterprise, Smokey (Larry Pine) the owner of a devil concession at a local carnival does. In a surreal scene during which Lee, in a bridal white ensemble, stumbles into Smokey's "Hell Hole" on her way to marrying the scrap metal king, devilish sparks fly between the much married but never in love matron and Smokey. Love seems to transform the devil in him (symbolized by two tiny red horns sticking out of his forehead at all times) into a force for good. He moves into the over-populated bungalow. Lee's need for control paves the way for those around her to detox themselves from their unwholesome dependencies.
The descriptive literature for the play asks whether the change in these characters is destiny or evolution. You may not figure out the answer for yourself but, as I said at the outset of this review, watching these characters reveal their oddball quirks and move ever so slowly towards a modicum of normalcy is never boring, especially since the seven actors nail down their characters' oddities with great skill. Larry Pine who played a nasty devil of an anti-Semite in Mizlansky/Zilinsky or "Schmucks" is particularly good as the benign devil who here charms Carlyn Glenn and her goofy family. Glynn, who was seen on this same stage as the only friend of the doomed title character in Amazing Grace, makes a strong case for the attractions of women of a certain age. Brenda Wehle gives Dixon the wry humor made famous by old silver screen actresses like Rosalind Russell and Eve Arden.
Chemistry of Change was previously produced at the Public Theater, the Royal Court, Steppenwolf and South Coast Rep. It was printed in full in the September '98 issue of American Theatre and it's interesting to note that in that version the loose endings haven't been tied together quite as neatly as in the current production. Given the play's style, the original ending strikes me as more apt.
LINKS TO REVIEWS OF OTHER PLAYS MENTIONED
The Mineola Twins
Mizlansky/Zilinsky or "Schmucks"