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|A CurtainUp Review
Second Thoughts on Freedomland
By Elyse Sommer Amy Freed's Freedomland, commissioned and first produced by California's South Coast Rep was given a three-week run last fall by Woolly Mammoth Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz. It was reviewed at that time by our intrepid commuter between the Beltway and the Great White Way, Les Gutman.
Now Shalwitz has brought his "further developed" interpretation to the slightly larger stage of Playwright's Horizons Wilder Theater for another brief run. Even though the cast and stagecraft team are brand new, Les's review sums up the essence of what Freedomland is about and offers insights that apply now as then. I shall therefore limit myself here to some addendums to Les's remarks and comments on the new cast and stage properties.
The play's troubled family as a microcosm within the larger macrocosm of the human condition evoked the "vast feel" of plays like Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth for Les. (His summer '98 review of that play is linked at the end of his DC review). Freedomland's more obvious links are to Sam Shepard's Buried Child and a play currently down the avenue, Bosoms and Neglect (see link). Ms. Freed, like John Guare, is an inspired wordsmith with a gift for surreal touches in situations grounded in familiar and real territory. There's even a quip about the bosoms of the Underwood family which here too symbolize neglect as much as sexual or maternal comfort.
The combined eccentricities of the Underwoods and the two outsiders at their unplanned reunion in some ways also serves as a a marker in the evolution of screwball families like the Sycamores of George S. Kaufman's You Can't Take It With You. But while that family created in the midst of the Great Depression was thoroughly lovable and everyone had their heads and hearts in the right place, the Underwoods are products of the sixties and to call them eccentrics is to use a euphemism for lunacy of a far darker hue. That brings us to Les's comments about the difficulties inherent in a story told through the mouths of people who are so deeply disturbed that they've stepped beyond the boundary that divides ditzy from demented. On the other hand, I think we could use a few more adjectives to properly categorize this also-ran Pulitzer play. I'd modify that good (as in Les's "good but not great") with "very" and, at the risk of adverb overload, also add "inventive" or "original."
Since neither Les or I saw the South Coast Rep production, it's hard to say if the multiple issues raised in Ms. Freed's script were clearer and on a more equal footing with the comic elements there. I do think that if the one brief scene in which Sig and Noah (Dakin Matthews) sit near the fireplace in a rare moment of emotional connection could have extended to the other more serious scenes, this production would have more fully realized its author's ambitions.
To move on to the New York cast. While Les seemed to feel that the Underwood women couldn't be better, Veanne Cox, Carrie Preston and Robin Strasser prove that they are every bit as good as the original Sig, Polly and Claude. Ms. Cox especially is marvelous as the tightly controlled, razor-tongued Sig who feels she's the only Underwood who's got a handle on life. Her opening interview with the culture journalist Titus (Jeff Whitty) to whom she's a Norman Rockwell of sad clown paintings is simply priceless. She is so consistently good that when she moves to the background, you find yourself pleasurably anticipating her next front and center move. Whitty, too is terrific and incidentally provides the currently de rigueur flash of nudity later on in the proceedings.
The Underwood men who were apparently played rather underwhelmingly in DC are not without problems here. However, Dakin Matthews does well by the spaced out and chronically self-absorbed Noah. In fairness to Matthews and Jeffrey Donavan, the dropout from civility son and Heather Goldenhersh who plays his girl friend, the choicest lines have been given to the family's distaff members.
Finally, a word about the looks of this production. Loy Arcenas has built a handsome and versatile set of the homestead's interior as well as an upstage rooftop plus a "view" painted on the exterior of the house. Candice Donnelly's costumes couldn't be more apt which is also true of Johnna Doty's incidental music.
Flaws not withstanding, Freedomland is a never boring and leaves you with plenty to think about. Too bad its short run and some of the less than enthusiastic reviews which preceded this one may keep it from finding as large an audience as it deserves -- at least in New York. My guess is that this play will have fair share of productions in regional theaters.
Freedomland in DC
Bosoms and Neglect