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A CurtainUp Review
In the Wake
By Elyse Sommer
Kron's new play revolves around two couples: Kayla (Susan Pourfar) and Laurie (Danielle Skaarstad), and Ellen (Marin Ireland) and Danny (Michael Chernus). Kayla and Laurie are happily married Lesbians. They live in the same East Village walk-up apartment house as Kayla's brother Danny and her best friend Ellen. Danny and Ellen's loving but unmarried partnership becomes complicated when Amy (Jenny Bacon), a Cambridge based film maker and casual friend from Ellen's college days contacts her and they fall in love. Ellen loves Danny and treasures their nurturing relationship as well as their familial connection with Kayla and Laurie, but her love affair with Amy is not an easily put aside quick fling.
But while the plot focuses on these characters' relationships as friends as well as lovers, their personal stories are basically the microcosmic reflection of the larger societal issues that inspired Kron to write this play. Everything that happens in these two couples' lives takes place, per the title, "in the wake" of various major historic events from 2000 to 2005.
A November 2000 Thanksgiving dinner at Ellen and Danny's apartment plays out against the still unresolved outcome of the Bush-Gore election. The personal stories move forward with conversation heavy scenes that follow in the wake of the 9/11 attack, the government's decision to invade Iraq, and Bush's second term victory.
Sound a little like a one-part Lesbian Fantasia of the Bush years, shades of Tony Kushner's epic Reagan era Angels In America? It's a question that's likely to crop up, especially given that In the Wake's official opening at the Public Theater comes right on the heels of the opening of the Signature Theater's new production of Angels in America— the marathon event of the season.
Like Kushner's Angels. . . Kron's In the Wake is structured to examine the national landscape during the Bush years in tandem with the personal stories of two interconnected groups of people. And, as Kushner's most clear-eyed character is Belize, the erstwhile drag queen turned nurse, so In the Wake has Ellen's friend Judy (Deirdre O'Connell), a weary, tell-it-like-it-is NGO international human rights worker.
But hold on. Ms. Kron is no copycat playwright but an original and incisive story teller (2.5 Minute Ride and Well) and too many comparisons are perhaps unfair since In the Wake is an intelligent play that, besides the much neglected Lesbian angle, has a lot to say — and does so through a group of very likeable people, all of whom are well portrayed by a first-class cast.
Still, it's too bad that this isn't the important Lesbian play it might have been. Even though Ellen and Amy's exploding passion is sensitively portrayed, the triangular situation it creates is rather slight, as are the interlinked stories of Kayla and Amy and Judy and her teen-aged niece Tessa (Miriam F Glover). In fact, as our LA critic Evan Henerson remarked when he reviewed The Wake during its premiere run (Evan's review before the In was added to the title), the perky somewhat cliched New York apartment jumping scenes occasionally feel like an episode from Friends, with the focus on one character (the liberal politics obsessed Ellen) to give it social relevance.
The frailty of In the Wake's personal elements makes it easy for them to come close to being drowned by the tidal wave of political conversations. Interesting and valid as those conversations are, such a heavy dose of polemics does not make for a fleet-footed 2 and 3/4 hours (which is almost as long, but feels longer, than the first part of Angels in America).
To park my quibbles and do some praising. Under Leigh Silverman's direction the entire cast is a beautifully meshed ensemble (3 or whom—Skaarsard, O'Connell and Glover— appeared in the LA production). David Korins' artfully flexible set enables the action to flow effortlessly between the Manhattan apartment and Ellen and Amy's Boston scenes, and also provide a dynamic proscenium background for Alexander V. NIchols' projections of the black and white news footage.
Marin Ireland, an always interesting to watch actress, does get a grip on the viewer's heart as the opinionated liberal Ellen who talks a lot, but lacks the good listener's sensitivity to the feelings of others. You find yourself wishing you could help her see the blind spot that she sess more easily in others than herself before some of the warmth is drained from her friendship with Kalya and she loses not only both her lovers but her optimism about living in a country where you CAN have everything. Actually it's Danny (the excellent Michael Chernus who knows how to be warm and cuddly and make a pause say more than a lot of words), the good humored boyfriend whose patience with her physical and emotional absence from their relationship borders on saintliness, who finally tells her (as high living Americans are realizing that they can't have everything without taxes and other tough choices).
While Ireland is the nominal star, it's Deirdre O'Connel's Judy who is the most memorable presence and also provides some much needed comic relief. O'Connell plays graceless grumpiness with an irresistibly endearing rumpled charm. She spends much of her time on what passes as a patio in Manhattan's East Village — the fire escape. Unlike the middle class Ellen she comes to her tough views of the US as a place where the system leads to a place for everyone via a hardscrabble background which she feels she escaped only through luck and being smart. To her the system Ellen so staunchly believes in simply adjusts to maintain the order that disenfranchises the poor. ("occasionally a door cracks open for a decade or so and then it gets slammed shut".)
Neither Judy or Ellen leave us with anything to uplift or cheer us. The difference between them is is that Judy, who's 20 years older than Ellen has been an ueber-realist for years. She even entered into a recent love affair without expectations of lasting satisfaction. Ellen, on the other hand, is an optimistic risk taker at the beginning of the play but by the play's less than cheerful end, declares that she was wrong to think of herself as "golden" and "limitless," since this cost her all the things precious to her.
The lesson in all this is that everything is indeed not a choice. As she puts it "Look. Look at your life." Good advice, if only Ms. Kron had remembered that a truly powerful play must balance enlightenment with entertainment. A cut of at least half an hour would have been a good first step towards achieving that balance.