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A CurtainUp San Francisco Review
The Hopper Collection
San Francisco's Magic Theatre prides itself as one of the few major U.S. theatre companies that specializes in presenting new plays. And every once in a while they strike gold. Its world preiere of The Hopper Collection by a budding, perhaps genius-like new playwright Mat Smart, is the case in point.
The young author, recently out of graduate school, uses a haunting painting by modern realist painter Edward Hopper as the catalyst for his drama of two couples, a generation apart in age who long for connection in a lonely world. Director Chris Smith and his creative team have taken their cue from the playwright's use of Hopper to build their work around other seminal American artists as well, thereby lending a timeless 20th-Century feel to this very contemporary play.
First on scene are the older couple. To the music of Cole Porter's "I've got you Under my Skin" attractive, eccentric middle aged Marjorie (played perfectly by Julia Brothers) and her husband Daniel (an equally fine Andy Murray) spar verbally in the ruthless spirit of Albee's Martha and George. She especially tosses verbal barbs like arrows. The somewhat mysterious cause of their estrangement proves to be Marjorie's obsession with the painting - -tantalizingly out of sight throughout the play-- just one of the many mysteries, twists and surprises in this enchanting post-modern riff on relationships.
The inexplicably devoted Daniel is Marjorie's favorite target, until the young couple Edward (Zac Jaffee in an apt, sympathetic performance) and Sarah/Natalie (played by beautiful young Anna Bullard) arrive at the couple's slick Frank Lloyd Wright style home hoping to view the famous painting. This is one of the plot's complicated angles.
Although she knows they are about to arrive, the melodramatic, slightly off-balance Marjorie has stripped to what appears to be a 40's era bathing suit. This is just one of many sexually provocative gambits which seem to be part of a long standing diversion in which the older couple indulges. We eventually learn that she and Daniel act out characters in a role-playing game stemming from Marjorie's brief encounter with Edward Hopper when she was a teenager and which involves the original Hopper painting "Summer Evening" that the wealthy Daniel bought for Marjorie. The painting which hangs down stage in their upscale house seems to be the source of both love and hate on Marjories part.
The play opens with one of Marjorie's fantasy attempts to murder Daniel with a cyanide laced Diet Coke as her shadow-boxing husband flirts with her. The boxing technique apparently turns her on-and then off, for she soon calls him a brute and insists he drink his coke, which she declares does indeed contain cyanide! We learn that Daniel refuses to look at the Hopper painting and though it torments him to pretend to be Hopper for her amusement, he is so determined to make her love him that that they will continue to live in the same house even if they are not truly together -- this not being together evident as each often retreats to his or her "side" of the spacious house.
Enter the eager young Hopper fans who are meeting as prearranged by way of the young man's poignant letter to Marjorie. Edward is excited at the prospect of seeing the Hopper original, as is Sarah who is his ostensibly his long lost love. Yet, they are here for their own separate reasons. Caught up in a romantic fervor, Marjorie has allowed the lovers to come to her house and view the painting. It is something rare for her and not to Daniel's liking. The young couple as portrayed by Zac Jaffee and Anna Bullard add youthful energy and romance as well as some offbeat secrets of their own. The layer upon layer of revelations is the only technique that didn't quite work for me. Enigma and mystery can eventually overwhelm and confuse. However, Jaffee is eager and earnest as Edward -- a wise innocent who has only a short time to live out his dreams. And Bullard is a delight as the art student who may or may not be the girl of his dreams.
But the play is Marjorie's, and Brothers portrays her with old-fashioned eccentric comic wit. Subject to sudden histrionic fits, raging fantasies and manic pill-popping, she can be a monster and the part is perhaps a bit over the top -- not unusual in a character envisioned through the eyes of a twenty-something. The husband's forbearance is also a bit hard to believe, but Smart's action and character twists flow with charming originality, and Brothers and Murray carry one along to the ultimately satisfying end.
I'm not surprised that this lively and original play is scheduled to be produced in 2006 at Huntington Theatre Company in Boston and that talented Mr. Smart is already at work on a commission for the South Coast Repertory. Oh, yes, he's also at work on a new rock musical for the White Horse Company in Chicago.
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