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String of Pearls
The string of a pearl necklace can snap with time and careless handling. But as pearls can be re-strung so that favorite story telling device of passing a treasured object from one owner to another is always good for a new set of circumstances in the right story teller's hands -- be it a necklace, an item of clothing, or a musical instrument. The star-studded film oldie, Tales of Manhattan, and the more recent Red Violin spring to mind.
The latest writer to give the tried and true pass-it-on device a whirl is playwright Michelle Lowe who uses a pearl necklace to string together a quick-witted, sharply observed of the female experience. Director Eric Simonson has given Lowe's comedy String of Pearls, a slick, sprightly staging that gets Primary Stages' first full season in its new 59E59th Street home off to an entertaining start.
Lowe's play is written for a small cast -- four women -- to play at least six roles each. The foursome doing the honors -- Antoinette La Vecchia, Ellen McLaughlin, Mary Testa and Sharon Washington -- glide from role to role gracefully and seemingly without effort.
Ellen McLaughlin starts the pearls on their journey with a monologue as Beth, a widowed grandmother wanting to bequeath the necklace given to her by her husband to her granddaughter Amy (LaVecchia), a doctor. The pearls have mysteriously disappeared -- how else could Lowe move forward with her traveling pearl conceit? At one time, however, they played a significant role in Beth's marriage, first as a more than a little unusual marriage-saving sexual string-of-words fantasy and later as a concrete gift from her amorous spouse. Beth's lengthy monologue is enlivened by interactions that set up various peripheral plot threads. In short, even as the spotlight is on one performer's character, the other three women make persona shifting appearances.
The story that leads us to the necklace's final owner once again focuses on McLaughlin in her septuagenarian role, this time with an unlikely new love interest-- a 300-pound grave digger named Cindy. With master clown Mary Testa drolly playing Cindy, what would otherwise be fairly incredible and over the top actually comes off as quite poignant. Testa's other characters, all superbly differentiated, range from a haughty but emotionally fragile chaperone with the New York City Ballet who finds the pearls in a posh Paris boutique, to two young women -- one who's frustrated because mothering has short stopped her career as an architect and a gung-ho super mom whose whole life is short circuited by terminal cancer. Too bad Testa doesn't get a chance to showcase her powerful vocal chops.
McLaughlin, LaVecchia and Washington also prove themselves to be deft chameleons, whether called on to be serious or funny.
Loy Arcenas has worked magic with some sliding panels and a rectangular glass walkway, under which water seems to flow and bubble. In one story, that in-ground cross between a lap pool and a giant fish tanks is actually used as a swimming pool where a lonely St. Louis transplant to Manhattan (a much younger McLaughlin) makes much needed friends. D. M. Wood's lighting and David Zinn's costumes round out the simple but snazzy production values.
Inevitably when you try to connect this many characters, some are bound to be too fragmentary and improbably linked and you're likely to get at least one too many. My prime candidate for excision would be the hotel maid from Tunis who finds and resells the pearls to raise money to bring her young daughter to America.
In assessing the sum of its parts, String of Pearls smartly combines comedic romps, get-out-your-hankerchief episodes and touches of melodrama. Though the pearls pass through too many hands, the terrific cast never allows them to lose their luster.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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