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A CurtainUp Review
The Hatmaker's Wife
It also doesn't take us long to see how important to this production is the presence of three wonderfully animate veteran —- David Margulies, Marcia Jean Kurtz and Peter Friedman — who play Jewish ghosts with the obligatory thick Eastern European accents. They are fortunately not asked to walk through walls, only to kvetch and to kindle a kind of whimsical parable. These fine actors enter the action without extraordinary ado and lend considerable sparkle to a play that otherwise sputters and stalls within the genre of magical realism.
Conjuring up the spirit world is something that happens unwittingly and unexpectedly to Voice. Yes, that's her name and played convincingly by Stephanie Wright Thompson. She begins to hear voices and strange sounds soon after she enters the virtually vacant living room for the first time of the old suburban home that she and her boyfriend Gabe (Frank Harts) have recently rented. While Gabe is occupied with carrying in boxes with their possessions, Voice becomes preoccupied by sheets of paper that come drifting down from the wall, none of these are seen by Gabe.
One by one and day by day the papers descend, as Voice starts to read aloud the story of a couple who once lived there and of their good friend and neighbor who also, as it turns out, (not a spoiler) could have something to tell Voice about her past and who she is. While Gabe, a professor, begins his first semester, Voice, an editor of instruction manuals, remains at home to find herself the channel through which materialize the spirits of Hetchman (Margulies), a curmudgeonly milliner and his sad, long ignored wife (Kurtz). Also becoming a party to their return is Meckel (Friedman) their former friend and neighbor.
With his favorite hat on his head, the elderly Hetchman has laid claim to the easy (and only) chair where he sits and watches TV and nibbles canned nuts. It is plain to see by his behavior and through his grousing that he has no interest in or appreciation for his wife, whose name he cannot remember. Worse yet, he has never fulfilled her only request of him to have a hat of her own. This hat business is presumably symbolic and a metaphor for the play's theme: Our capacity for love determines who we are and what our children will inherit.
Lonely and despairing, the Wife walks out on Hetchman taking his hat with her. Realizing he has been abandoned, he welcomes Meckel's company. Friedman gives a vibrantly engaging performance as the neighbor and friend who makes an effort to explain the importance of love to Hetchman. Resolutely stubborn and insensitive, Hetchman doesn't know that that his Wife (touching performance by Kurtz) has found affection from Meckel, as will Voice in a semi-sweet denouement that helps to tie up some loose ends.
Although Voice cannot see the spirits as she continues to read from the floating sheets of paper, she clearly hears the voice in the wall, also given an image of a woman in a frame played by Megan Byrne wearing a lovely chapeau. Amidst this is the intrusion and intervention of a lumbering mythical, monstrous Golem (played with appropriate groans and grimaces by the hefty, talented and versatile Mr. Harts) who becomes a mover and shaker when it comes to revealing some of the deep-seated emotional issues at stake. These include the releasing of memories contained in glowing bottles in several crates. Don't try to wrap your brain around this, but know that Voice begins to understand what has brought her to this house and why she is conflicted in her feelings for Gabe.
One might suppose that Yee has used her play to confront personal issues of family history while exercising her flair for dramatic writing. The Hatmaker's Wife, under the supportive direction of Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812) could probably have gained credibility within its fantastical situation if we had an inkling what was at stake from the start in the relationship between Voice and Gabe. As it is, the play proceeds somewhat ponderously and without the kind of momentum that could keep us from wanting to climb the wall. Set Designer Carolyn Mraz stuns us gratifyingly with a wall that makes its own rather dramatic climactic statement.
The Playwrights Realm, which has been a supportive institution serving early-career playwrights since 2007, has found another playwright with promise with a promise of better plays to come.