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A CurtainUp Review
A Small Melodramatic Story
By Elyse Sommer
In structure Stephen Belber's new play most closely resembles The Death of Frank, which was also insightfully directed by Lucie Tiberghien. It's a narrator driven play but with shifts from narration to active scenes between the narrator (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and the three other characters who propel this small, generally quiet and non-explosive story to its melodramatic conclusion.
The chief narrator is a thirty-eight-year-old widow cryptically and rather pretentiously named O (Bernstine). That's not an initial used instead of Olga or Ophelia or Oprah, but just O. Christening her with this puzzling name may be the playwright's way of underscoring this exploration of the elusiveness of all history, whether pertaining to a poor Latino teen ager, a police or army officer, or a well known historic personage — and whether the need to know all the facts sometimes should bow to the old cliche about letting sleeping dogs lie.
Takeshi Kata's steel gray office furnished mostly with locked files is presumably the National Security Archive where O's friend Keith (Lee Sellars) works as a researcher. It also serves for scenes that play out at various locations in and around present day Washington DC.
Belber uses O, with her tendency to be attracted to men who are hard to know fully, as the foreground figure of the larger canvas of the government archive office where, as Keith puts it "everything that mankind has done somewhere is documented." O's audience addressing monologues provide the playwright with the opportunity to indulge both his penchant for poetic language (see O's character establishing speech at the top of this review) and amusing dialogue. While a subtle sense of humor is also part of O's persona, the funniest dialogue goes to Sellars' Keith.
Keith, who knew O's husband Burt long before she did (they were college buddies and joined the army together, with Burt becoming a career army man). He feels O needs to let go of her life in the Falls Church, Virginia house she inherited from her husband and come to DC for a more vibrant life — hopefully, one in which he'll have a larger role than seeing her during her occasional drop-in visits to his apartment.
O likes Keith and is tempted by his courting overtures, but it's his friend Perry (the play's most textured and emotionally persuasive character as played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a policeman with whom he boxes occasionally, who stirs her heart. After her first date with him she admits in an audience aside that "here was a man I could sink my teeth into" This triangular situation doesn't make for even a tiny melodrama. However, since her husband was something of a hard to figure out wild card and even the cause of his death remains an unexplained mystery, O's discovery that the gentle-seeming Perry was involved in a shooting of a Latino boy compels her to dig further into what happened and why before getting more deeply involved with him. Posing as a journalist, she seeks out Cleo (Carlo Alban) the now twenty-two year-old brother of the young man Perry shot. It is from the moment that this seething cauldron of malice and menace comes on scene that we sense that the title's "m" word will materialize in this heretofore quiet story.
The shift from low key to high drama raises the issue of the unintended consequences of being too much of a "knowledge seeker." The big problem with introducing this melodramatic element into the admittedly small story, is that it's as much as anything the result of going about that knowledge quest foolishly rather than wisely.
To Lucie Tiberghien's credit, the explosive situation is smoothly handled and of a piece with the production's mood. While she has coaxed compelling performances from the four actors she has allowed the intimacy of the theater to lull her into paying too little heed to voice projection. The Shiva Theater is small enough so that the last row is the equivalent of a prime orchestra seat in a Broadway house. Thus , seeing a play here should be like sitting right across the kitchen table frm the actors. Unfortunately, Ms. Bernstine who is a potently engaging actress here, as she recently was in Nami (review), delivers some of her most fraught with emotion lines in a near whisper. No such problems for Isiah Whitlock, whose booming baritone would be clarion clear to audiences in the back of a much larger house.
Like Public Television's News Hour, which scrupulously looks at both sides of every issue, Mr. Belber leaves it to Keith and O and Perry to make a case for knowing the bad as well as the good or letting go of past history. No matter how you feel about these questions, these characters' small melodramatic story adds up to a generally absorbing ninety minutes.
LINKS TO OTHER BELBER PLAY REVIEWS
Death of Frank
One Million Butterflies
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide