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A CurtainUp Review
The Singing Forest
By Elyse Sommer
Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, has this to say about Lucas's new play: "The terrible, only partially reparable wounds of history and the equally vexing problems of our individual traumas are the stuff of this unlikely comedy." The Holocaust is indeed not a historic event easily translated into a comedy. Yet, Lucas, an unfailingly interesting playwright and adapter (he adapted Elizabeth Spenscr's novella for the musical, Light in the Piazza), has managed to do just that. He not only examines the events of the thirties via a family saga and through a comic lens, but veers into a four-door farce to reconnect the long and purposely out-of-touch Riemans and the people coincidentally involved with them.
Like the lives it depicts, The Singing Forest is messy, sprawling play. It's top heavy with credibility challenging coincidences and in need of trimming. But, while it's a play that will have you walking out a touch unsure whether you really loved and understood what you saw, you won't be bored watching it and you'll probably find yourself thinking about it after you leave..
For one thing, attention must and will be paid, if only to figure what's going on and who's really infuriated with who, and why. Then there's Olympia Dukakis as the locus of the Rieman family's dysfunction. This is her most unique role since the TV mini-series Tales of the City. She may be the focal character, but this is an ensemble play and Dukakis is supported by eight eminently watchable actors, each of whom play two roles. That adds up to a total of seventeen intriguing personalities, which include Dr. Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna.
The program indicates that the three acts are neatly divided between three different locales and time frames: New York in 2000, Vienna from 1933 and 1938, and London in 1940. However, this is not your conventional two-intermission play. Thus, with the help of some location defining roll-on props, John McDermott's overall scenic design — a rather ugly but effective affair with sliding panels — serves all locations.
The play entwines a number of subplots and themes into an intricate plot arc. Since the Riemans are Viennese Jews whose Jewish identity went into hiding years ago, it took the Nazi rise to power to flush out their Jewish roots and Loë's brother Walter's homosexuality.
Having given up their religion, the Riemans found a new God in Sigmund Freud. No wonder that the cast of characters is studded with analysts and analysands. The analysands include the analysts themselves and of course Jonathan Groff's charmingly conflicted Gray, the unemployed actor who's a stand-in for a rich Arab-American member of the Rieman family tree (Louis Cancelmi). As it turns out, his offbeat job has him learn more about himself than his employer. Groff and Calcemi also play the more serious parts of young Walter Rieman and his lover in the Vienna scenes,
While Dr. Oliver Pfaff (Mark Blum, who also appears as the head of the assimilated Riemans in Vienna) is a traditional chair-behind-couch practitioner of Freud's trade. The now white-haired and reclusive mother (Dukakis) whom he hasn't seen for thirty-five years is also a therapist, but her current modus operandi is not the kind covered by any insurance plan.
A separate and yet connected sub-plot revolves around the competition for Gray (Groff) — Pfaff wants him as a patient, Shar Unger (Rob Campbell), the therapist he's supervising, would prefer to have him as a lover. Other plot threads involve Gray's girl friend Beth (Susan Pourfar, who doubles as the young Loë) and her Starbucks co-worker Lazlo (Randy Harrison, very funny in the New York scenes and scary as a Nazi in the Vienna circa 1938 flashback). And yes, Lazlo is also closely connected to the two shrinks.
To further complicate matters there's Bertha Ahmad (Deborah Offner), who's estranged from both her son (Cancelmi) and her mother (Dukakis who at one point, and not without reason, describes her as "Clytemnestra. Husband Killer".).
Since every self-respecting epic must have a wise old drunk, we also have Bill (Pierre Epstein, who also has the more distinguished role of Dr. Freud). Bill befriends Loë in Starbucks, the place where coincidence sends practically everyone at one point or another.
If all this sounds like a knotty tangle of psyches gone amuk, hold on. The best part of the play is when everyone converges on Loë's Staten Island loft (yes, Staten Island!) and the comedy switches gears to become a full-scale door-slamming farce.
I'm still not sure why Lucas chose to build a play on a foundation of coincidences and I was somewhat let down to see that brilliant farcical mid-section followed by a finale that tries to put all the pieces of this Freudian puzzle together. After all, one's personal history can never really be neatly summed up. It just keeps happening.