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A CurtainUp Review

La Terrasse
By Les Gutman

Language just doesn't serve its purpose anymore, but people go on talking.
. . .
Why did you tell us that story?
Because there was a silence.
You say whatever comes into your head, and sometimes it makes sense.

--- Jean-Claude Carrière

The stakes seem to be defined before the play begins. Santo Loquasto has designed a set that requires a good ten minutes to properly digest. It's a modern apartment, very modestly decorated. In a city (Paris) that thrives on style, it has little. It's redeeming value -- its selling point, as we shall discover -- is its terrace.

The occupants, Madeleine (Sarah Knowlton) and Etienne (Jeremy Davidson), are a youngish couple. Almost immediately after the play begins, she casually announces she is leaving. She is in fact waiting for her new lover to pick her up in his red Alfa Romeo. That it stressfully takes until the penultimate moment for him to show up forms this play's dramatic minuet.

As Etienne's first reaction to Madeleine's news tells us, he can't afford the apartment without her. He is unemployed and, so far as we can see, bereft of momentum. Not to worry. She has already contacted the real estate agency. A parade of potential tenants will be along shortly.

Mark O'Donnell has achieved an estimable feat, translating this play by Jean-Claude Carrière (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Belle de Jour etc. etc.) into breezy American English with losing its Franco-feel. There is not one false note. Mike Ockrent directs with razor-sharp attention to detail, glossing over none of the play's comic opportunities and yet never letting the abundant physical comedy get completely out of hand. This painstaking punctilio extends to William Ivey Long's costumes and Loquasto's set as well.

Knowton and Davidson are fine (she, with icy exterior concealing hints of incertainty; he, with euro-handsomeness but decidedly little more), but they are mere window-dressing. It's the absurd spectacle that The Woman from the Agency (Annie Golden) will unwittingly unleash that's the show here.

Golden is zany, in an airheaded sort of a way. Her first prospect seems legitimate enough. The General's Wife (Margaret Hall) is looking for quiet place to move into with The General. She's also intensely interested in the terrace, and its railing. After a few minutes and some healthy skepticism, she pronounces it a possibility and moves on. Although she'll be back later, and not without a surprise or two, the throttle of this comedy is placed in the able hands of the three remaining men. It's a three ring circus.

Mr. Astruc (David Schramm), a slightly mysterious force of a man begins innocently enough by looking around the apartment. Before he is through, he will have commandeered it and all of its resources: using the telephone, raiding the larder, taking a nap, even holding a business meeting. It's a brilliant performance, tiring to watch and a joy to behold. He never gets around to renting the apartment, but he stirs up enough of a tempest we barely notice.

His colleague, Maurice (Bruce Norris), offers to rent it several times. It's not the only offer we hear from him. If Astruc is a Mack Truck careening down the road, the romantically-challenged Maurice is a manic Jaguar swerving as he speeds past. Maurice may have lost his bearings, but Norris never comes close to losing control. Anxious and forlorn, Maurice is prone to extremes, but Norris knows how to avoid excesses. Another blissful performance.
Finally, and briefly, we meet The General (Tom Aldredge). Practically blind and helpless, there's little for him to do but bump and fall. Aldredge turns it into a comic masterpiece.

This is farce, not drama, and neither the stakes nor the point matter much. This is the land of inconsequential and unanticipated consequences. Remember this, and La Terrasse remains a delight from the howl and rush of the wind with which it begins to the clink of wine glasses with which it ends. Yes, characters resonate and speak modern truths, but we are not expected to pay too much attention; just sit back, smile and enjoy.

by Jean-Claude Carrière 
Directed by Mike Ockrent 
with Tom Aldredge, Jeremy Davidson, Annie Golden, Margaret Hall, Sarah Knowlton, Bruce Norris and David Schramm
Set  Design: Santo Loquasto 
Costume Design: William Ivey Long 
Lighting Design: Natasha Katz 
Sound Design:  Fabian Obispo 
Time: 1 hours and 40 minutes with no intermission. 
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage II, at City Center, 131 West 55th Street (6/7 AV) (212) 581-1212 
Opened June 8, 1999 closing July 25 
Seen June 13, 1999 and reviewed by Les Gutman June 15, 1999

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