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A CurtainUp Review
Only the End of the World
by Brad Bradley
The press release for Jean Luc Lagarce's Only the End of the World tells us this French play receiving its U.S. premiere "is a touching story of a man's return to his hometown after many years away. Motivated by the need and desire to reveal his terminal illness to his family, he is instead confronted with the buried wounds of his siblings and mother, wounds that his mere presence reopens. He becomes an almost silent observer of a catharsis his presence provokes, and at the end of the day, he is forced to leave just as he came."

Lagarce's entire script, like the above apt press excerpt, centers on elaborate sentences, long reflections and assessments. There is little action apart from superficial familial moments, mostly around a table at mealtime. However, beyond the dense language and superficial action are a remarkable vividness of character and genuineness of feeling that pass the footlights.

We begin with a reflective yet cold monologue by Michael Emerson in the role of Louis, the 34-year-old man making an ambivalent return to this childhood home. Emerson's selection for this role is remarkably parallel to his arrival on the New York stage several years ago as Oscar Wilde in Gross Indecency. Louis, like Wilde, is a character who brilliantly assesses everyone and everything in his path, but still is unable to help himself.

Louis's return to his mother's home wins an exuberantly frenzied greeting from his younger sister Suzanne (feelingly played by Jennifer Mudge), but receives an ambiguous to irritated reception from his mother, brother and sister-in-law. Immediately, the conversation brings to mind much of Edward Albee's work. I was reminded especially of the extended reflections and assessments spoken in All Over and A Delicate Balance. These remarks, here as in Albee, bear the pains of fear and burden. Both writers sometimes express these feelings in the exaggerated form of diatribe, although Lagarce is careful to never apply vehemence to the central character of Louis, who is the most passive leading man I can recall since Bobby in the Sondheim & Furth musical Company of 1970. And throughout the play, Louis's suppression of emotion and agonizing status as an in-effect "lost son" invokes the Albee influence even more deeply. When the moments of character interaction turn tense or hostile, and dialogue becomes punctuated with painful silences, one also wonders about Pinter, another likely influence on this French playwright. Largarce, for the record, was born in 1957, a generation later than these still-productive writers. He died of AIDS at the age of 38, having imparted considerable autobiographical characteristics onto his troubled protagonist Louis.

A superficially faithful son and sibling even during his absence, Louis apparently has kept in touch through "elliptical letters" and empty postcards. His sister Suzanne seems to romanticize her distant brother, and The Mother sometimes escapes her own distance for indulgences of nostalgia, but brother Antoine, decidedly a proletarian next to his existentially intellectual and usually-absent only brother, is unable to take any comfort in being reminded of their continuing differences and past difficulties. The role is largely undefined in the script, and Stephen Belber, while a good actor, and even while quite interesting to watch here, is unable to find a core in the character any more successfully than the playwright.

The production by Lucie Tiberghien dazzles in its indication of texture, subtlety of character revelation, and fluidity of scene change. Uncredited music is also an asset, as is Tiberghien's brisk translation, which maintains the flavor of a French family while never resorting to cliché or archness. Ultimately, the play is quintessentially human rather than French, reminding us in unusually reflective language that families everywhere experience trouble communicating. When this difficulty pulls families apart, especially when one or more members are experiencing crisis, the pain and heartache is all the more apparent to many of us when the silences speak even more loudly than the words.

Only the End of the World
Written by Jean Luc Lagarce
Translated and Directed by Lucie Tiberghien
Cast: Michael Emerson, Jennifer Mudge, Stephen Belber, Sandra Shipley and Katie Firth
Set Design: Sarah Lambert
Costume Design: Mimi O'Donnell R
Lighting Design: Michael Foster
Sound Design:
Running time: 2 Hours
Theatre 3 at 311 West 43rd Street, 3rd floor, 212/252-4437
8/01/02-8/24/02; opening 8/05/02
Monday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8:00 p.m. -- $15
Reviewed by Brad Bradley based on August 5th performance .
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