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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The nation-wide change in divorce laws put an end to Reno's thriving business of hosting divorce seekers for the required six week Nevada residency. Places like the Pioneer Valley Divorce Ranch as the go-to destination made famous by divorcing movie stars. We're occasionally reminded of this cultural artefact when Claire Booth Luce's The Women pops up on the Turner movie channel.
Even though Mr. Charman's reasons for choosing to revisit a long gone era for his first American drama do reveal themselves, it remains an odd and not especially compelling choice. As Lizzie Loveridge commented when she reviewed The Observer about the monitoring of the first democratic election in a country in West Africa in London, "Charman is a playwright who does his research." I assume that this is also the case for Regrets.. and that budget-priced for men only enterprises such as that run by the play's Mrs. Duke (Adriane Lenox) simply weren't as much talked and written about as the divorce ranches for affluent marital refugees, most of whom were the female partners in a marriage.
As it turns out, Regrets isn't just about divorce American middle-class male style, but, like The Observer, a political play— well, sort of. After all, the 1950s were a period of tremendous upheavals. World War II also casts its shadow over Mrs. Duke's tenants, not just because they've failed to hold together their marriages, but because of their struggle to fit back into the post war world generally. And, while the civil rights movement is not far off, women like Mrs. Duke may well have needed to conduct their businesses through a "white front." Add to that the fact that the post war years have also fanned the nation's distrust of communism and opened the door to freedom zapping forces like the McCarthy "witch hunts" so that anyone turning on a radio was likely to hear a replay of a day at the McCarthy's hearings.
The multi-issue background notwithstanding, don't expect a fast-paced political thriller. The overriding focus of Regrets is on letting go of the past and the power of friendship to give us the strength for new beginnings. The first act especially moves at an extremely leisurely pace and serves merely as a setup to acquaint the audience with the various characters: Alvin Novotny (Richard Topol), a nerdy and needy pet shop owner from Queens; Gerald Driscoll (Lucas Caleb Rooney) a former army sergeant with anger management problems; Ben Clancy (Brian Hutchinson) a school teacher who was emotionally and physically crippled by the war and has extended his 6-week divorce residency at Mrs. Duke's to three years; Chrissie Meyers (former Gillmore Girl Alexis Bledel) a local girl willing to do anything to get away from her father and Reno.
The men's problems and relationships with each other are detailed mostly through the back and forth talk that constitutes much of what the men do to pass the time in this isolated spot. The title stems from the main topic of conversation: regrets over past mistakes ("We deal in big mistakes here. Colossal, life ending mistakes"). As one man explains the talk is strictly "no politics, no red terro.r" However, once Caleb (LaGuardia High School senior Ansel Elgort), the newest and youngest cabin renter arrives, the guessing game of the other man is very much about him. He seems too young, too unforthcoming about himself to be just another veteran of a ruined marriage.
Unfortunately, for all the little hints about mysterious revelations to come, these characters are more stereotypes than intriguingly nuanced. Caleb's desire for a divorce does indeed come with an agenda for an unexpected a denouement. To say more would spoil the dramatic jolt that ends the first act and takes what follows into different territory. Suffice it to say though that the shifting emphasis on Caleb's situation comes pretty much out of left field. Unfortunately, this "surprise" unfolds with too many unconvincing twists.
Despite too many plot holes and characters, especially Alvin's, Caleb and the late on scene Robert Hanraty (Curt Bouril), who just didn't compute for me, Carolyn Cantor's subtle direction somehow conveys an atmosphere that holds your attention. And the actors' do give life to characters, even though they're neither memorable or believable.
As is usual at this Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center venue, Regrets also benefits from superb production values. Rachel Hauck's cabins in the Nevada woods evoke beauty and tranquility as well as an almost eerie shabbyness. Glimplse bits of interiers from the porches and leafy tree branches peeking through windows are exquisitely lit by Ben Stanton.
My own regret when I left the theater was that I didn't find my introduction to Mr. Charman's work a win-win-win. Instead it's a win for staging, a win for acting, but a loser in the all-important solid plotting and characterization department.
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