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A CurtainUp Review
Still Life

How to begin? A Futurist whose own future is in jeopardy, a Photographer whose sole purpose is to capture a moment, but can't live in the present, and a man who lives every moment like it's his last. That's the best I could do for a father who believe in me more than I will ever believe in myself. In the end, he left me with one profound lesson. Whatever challenges this or any other generation faces, one truth prevails. . .no matter what, there is still life. —Playwright Alexander Dinelaris, explaining why he came to write Still Life to honor his father.

Like it or not, you have to start taking pictures again. You have to start living again. Because the alternative is just more death. There's still life out there, Carrie Ann. What are you gonna do with it?— Joanne, the tough woman who's been a troubling a well as supportive presence in Carrie Ann's life.

Still Life
Sarah Paulson & Frederick Weller in Still Life
(Photo:Robert J. Saferstein)
As I watched Still Life, a world premiere and MCC's season opener, I was reminded of an old Bette Davis movie, Dark Victory, that I caught on the TCM channel just a few days earlier. It's a wonderful old weepie, in which Davis as an imperious heiress discovers true love, only to have it short circuited by the Grim Reaper. Up and coming playwright Alexander Dinelaris has tapped into this ever popular genre and achieved that rare combination: an unashamedly romantic tearjerker with a distinctly modern bent.

The emotions Still Life evokes may be timeless but Carrie Ann (Sarah Paulsen) and Jeffrey (Frederick Weller) are a breed apart from Bette Davis and George Brent. Theirs is not just a heart-tugging contemporary romance but a savvy exploration of the problems that their generation of young adults must come to grips with.

While Carrie Ann and Jeffrey seem to have the best of the Generation X world —she as an acclaimed artist-photographer, he is a well paid trend analyst for an advertising firm. But both have unresolved father issues. In her case, it's landed her in a photographer's version of writer's block. His growing up with a super-cynical, unsupportive father has made him apply his talents to boosting the sales of less than worthy products, most recently fried chicken.

The pitch Jeffrey develops to encourage people to forget calories and cholesterol and eat his account's fried chicken actually sums up what drives his generation: " . . .Afraid to live. Hole in the ozone. Lead in our tap water. Watch our carbs. Watch our kids. We're grown men, throwing around cholesterol numbers like we used to throw around bowling scores. We're pissed off. Why shouldn't we be? Every day someone else reminds us that if we don't watch out, we're gonna lose six years off our lives. And deep down, we're thinking, 'What six years? Seventy-eight to eighty-four?' We just want to live. Right now. Today. We go out of our way to be careful and then we watch the news and find out that sixteen people just bought it because some bus driver washed his Paxil down with Jack Daniels, took his bus and made a drive through out of a shoe store. Well, great. Lotta good the bran muffin and the Lipitor did them."

Dinelaris cleverly uses that chicken campaign to connect his themes and bring Carrie Ann and Jeffrey together at a downtown Manhattan art gallery opening of her photographs of dead chickens (an actual series of photographs entitled "The Fairest Fowl: Portraits of Championship Chickens" by Tamara Staples). Besides jumpstarting the whirlwind romance, the chicken campaign and the chicken photo exhibit introduces us to Jeffrey's boss Terry (Matthew Rauch) who, driven by his own deep-down insecurities, is not just crassly commercial, but dangerously self indulgent and obnoxiously aggressive towards women.

Besides the likeable romantic leads and the despicable Terry, Dinelaris has rounded out his play with interesting secondary characters: Joanne (Adriane Lenox), the tell-it-like-it-is academic who is largely responsible for Carrie Ann's success but also for her troubled feelings about her father; Sean (Ian Kahn), a physician and Jeffrey's oldest and truly caring friend and his wife Mary (Kelly McAndrew); Jessie (Halley Feiffer), an insecure but gifted photography student.

The playwright is blessed to have Will Frears at the helm. With the play structured to have scenes alternate from one side of the stage to the other, Frears has guided his designers to create the feel of its multiple locations with a de-emphasis on fussy staging and an emphasis on fluidity. Thus a long table and just a few other scenic props serve to evoke a university lecture hall, a conference room, an art gallery, Carrie Ann's apartment, several bar scenes and a dinner. Most importantly, he has elicited believable, powerful performances from the actors. Paulson and Weller are completely convincing as the besotted lovers —funny and sad, but never clawing. Rauch is chillingly smarmy as Terry. Dominic Chianese, best known as "Uncle Junior" in The Sopranos makes the most of two brief dream sequences as Theo, Carrie Ann's father.

Halley Feiffer and Kelly McAndrews demonstrate enormous versatility in multiple roles. McAndrew makes a particularly strong impression as Michaeline, a tough bar keeper. Feiffer's Jessie, like Jeffrey, understands what makes those dead birds in Carrie Ann's chicken show so disturbing and also inspiring. ("They're us. Proud. Beautiful. Ridiculous. Showing off all the time. But still so fragile. So afraid. Living every minute wondering when the axe will come down and take our heads off. I was looking at them and it made me think, maybe that's why those roosters crow so loudly in the morning. They're just so happy they got to see one more day").

There's lots of fine, meaningful dialogue here, sometimes too much--as illustrated by the lengthy argument about gender identities during the dinner scene with Carrie Ann, Jeffrey and their hosts Mary and Sean as somewhat too long and extraneous. There are a few other scenes that seem a bit forced but overall this is an absorbing and moving look at living fully no matter what our lucky or unlucky breaks.

Curtainup's review of the playwright's Red Dog Howls.

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Still Life by Alexander Dinelaris
Directed by Will Frears
Cast: Dominic Chianese (Theo), Halley Feiffer (Jessie, Lena, Nina, Sandra), Ian Kahn (Sean), Adriane Lenox (Joanne), Kelly McAndrew (Mary, Al, Michaeline), Sarah Paulson (Carrie Ann), Matthew Rauch (Terry), Frederick Weller (Jeffrey); also Bill Camp (Voice of Commercial).
Sets: David Korins
Costumes: Sarah J. Holden
Lighting: David Weiner
Sound: Fitz Patton
Original Music: Michael Friedman
Stage Manager: Christine Lemme
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission
MCC at Lucille Lortel Theatre 121 Christopher Street
From 9/16/09; opening 10/05/09; closing 11/01/09.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at October 3rd press preview
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