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A CurtainUp Review

Pieces of the Sky

David L. Paterson's Pieces of the Sky, like several other plays seen recently, (i.e., Good Will and With and Without linked below) falls within the rubric of a particular type of contemporary American well-made play -- a character driven slice of American life with a plot that has a beginning, middle and end. Like those other briefly shining beacons on the Off-Broadway theatrical horizon, Pieces of the Sky is modestly but lovingly produced, with a rock solid cast to engage our interest and sympathy. With ticket prices hardly more than a neighborhood movie, these small and engaging plays are also the biggest bargains around town.

To put us into this new play's time frame, there's Derek Stenborg's low-tech, non-chrome diner with a big "Hasten the Day" titled poster showing boots of American soldiers trampling on the Nazi and Japanese flags and in the background the recorded voices of the Andrew Sisters, Tex Beneke and other musical icons of the 1943 when World War II was in full force. The diner is in Deliverance, Nebraska, not a wartime boom town but a farming community where the echoes of the Great Depression have not yet faded away.

The "pieces" of the play's title are the parts of the jigsaw puzzles that serve as the only diversion in the troubled and lonely lives of the two main characters -- Sarah (Dianne Grotke) the divorced owner of the diner in and Joshua (Robert Ari) a 53-year-old German-Jewish mailman. It is over a puzzle that Sarah has been working on that the friendship with Joshua takes hold, and its over a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle with a blue sky that he brings her and numerous bottles of orange crush she serves that the relationship deepens.

"Give me a puzzle and an orange crush and I'm zufrieden (satisfied)" declares this unlikely mailman at one point. Indeed he has little else to be zufrieden about. You see Joshua is not only a stranger in a world that doesn't beat about the bush about calling a Jew "kike" but has the unhappy special assignment of having to be the one to tell the people within a fifty mile radius of Deliverance when their sons, husbands or brothers are killed or missing in action. His being a foreigner and a Jew has made it all the easier to translate their horror at the messages into hate for the messenger. There are three other characters to represent the town's collective character and insularity -- Sarah's drunkard of an ex-husband (Mick Weber), a young 4-F farmer (Jamie Bennett) crippled by a farm implement and his deaf and daffy older fishing partner (George Carvey).

Ari is quite wonderful as the mailman whose poor timing (he came to the U.S. to make his fortune on the verge of the Depression) made him a mailman instead of a millionaire. His wrenching account of how he sat in the mud with a bereaved mother in order to comfort her, and how her husband helps her up and tells him to stay down, clarifies his suffering over the messenger scapegoating he must endure. Dianne Grotke is equally fine as someone, who while no more educated or sophisticated than her fellow citizens is capable of change and growth -- and nevertheless inflicts the most wounding blow of all. Mick Weber as her ex-husband introduces a genuine sense of evil that seems to reflect the larger evil raging in the larger world far away from Deliverance. The two rural naifs acquit themselves splendidly in adding the needed comic relief (something of an American twist on the Irish villagers in The Cripple of Inishmaan ) and afford playwright Paterson an opportunity to throw out some colorful bits of dialogue -- as when Henry tells Patrick "you've got a mouth fresher than a May watermelon." (Paterson, by the way, is enjoying a concurrent premiere at the New Victory where he successfully adapted his novelist mother Katherine Patterson's The Great Gilly Hopkins. ).

Since Pieces of the Sky is a realistic play, there are some departures from believability that bear mentioning, especially because they could easily have been addressed by T. L. Reilly, the director. For a man as obviously bright as the character played by Robert Ari to be a mailman during the Depression is understandable. Many a native-borne college graduate was happy to get any job at all. However, by 1943, with every draft-age man in the service and factories paying good wages to any able-bodied worker, it's somewhat hard to understand how Joshua landed in this rural no man's land when he could surely have found some less demeaning work in the East. Also, given Sarah's native common sense, giving her (instead of Ari) the lines offering insight into the post-war world is an acceptable bit of poetic license. However, to have her offer a toast using a Hebrew word calls for a bit of preparation which could easily have been planted. These minor quibbles aside, Pieces of the Sky is a play well worth seeing. Thanks to the Urban Stages production company's commitment to bringing free theater to libraries throughout the boroughs, you might even find it coming to your neighborhood. However, why not enjoy it with this outstanding cast in its very pleasant and conveniently located rented theatrical home.

With and Without
Good Will
The Cripple of Inishmaan

By David L. Paterson
Director/Producer: T. L. Reilly
With: Robert Ari, Jamie Bennett, George Cavey, Diane Grotke, Mick Weber
Set: Derek Stenborg
Lighting: Jason Boyd
Costumes: Jen McGlashan
Sound: Johnna Doty
28th St. Theatre, 15 W. 28th St. (212/421-1380
Wednesday through Saturdays 8:00 pm; Sundays 3:00 pm; $15.
4/16/98-5/16/98; opening 4/22/98 Reviewed 4/22/98 by Elyse Sommer

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