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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Each of these 90-minute plays featured a cast of six friends facing a critical next phase of their lives: The older Fern Hill group faces the options of how to deal with the so-called golden age just around the bend; the 20-something Sunday group is contemplating their futures. All these characters are brought together for a specific purpose — in Fern Hill , to celebrate the decade spanning birthdays of the three men; in Sunday for a meeting of the friends weekly book club.
As it turned out, the real connecting link turned out to be that neither the characters of the younger or older generation managed to really pull the audience in to care deeply about any of them. Neither playwright managed to juggle his plot devices and themes effectively, and both plays left me disappointed. Ditto for my companion and several audience members I eavesdropped on as I left each venue.
I'll leave you to read my review of Fern Hill here and now focus on Sunday. Since it's written by Jack Thorne, the man who so successfully brougt J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter to the stage, expectations for any play with his byline are high. Yet, this much shorter play somehow feels longer and fails to enthrall .
For starters, if you've never read Ann Tyler's 1982 novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant , the best known of her three Pulitzer Prize finalists (Breathless, actually won) , you're going to be more than a bit at sea without having at least read a plot summary. I've therefore included a double tweet sized one at the end of the production notes. That said, the book club is actually just Mr. Thorne's device for creating a group portrait of this age group—their problems, dreams, ways of relating to each other and the social mores of the world they live in.
The Sunday book group members Thorne presents us with are not especially well-adjusted or likable . They're self-absorbed, bookish but not really intellectuals. The book chosen for the meeting we follow does prompt some discussion about the "toxic masculinity" of some of the novel's male characters. But the talk is all about the book club members' own psyches and their hopes for finding a defining experience to help them navigate the rest of their lives in a satisfying way, both in terms of work and personal relationships. In short, they want to live less boring lives than their parents and grandparents.
Unfortunately, besides these less than engaging characters the play's structure is messy and the scenes just don't hang together. While there are some mostly abrasive, interactions it's left to one member of the group, Alice (Ruby Frankel), to leave the downstage action and morph into omniscient as pop up at the top of the tall bookcase that serves as the major scenic prop and become our omniscient narrator and commentator. In short, the pay becomes more tell than show.
Director-choreographer Lee Sunday Evans doesn't help with her stylized direction. The sets, costumes and lighting are fine. But having the actors stop talking and break into manic dance routines to jump from scene to scene is probably intended to visually reflect their inner tensions. But these choreographic interludes are more distracting than diverting.
The actors do their best with the roles they've been given, some more successfully so than other. Ruby Frankel ably handles her segues from being a member of the group to the all-knowing presence high above the living room-kitchenette of the session's host, Marie (Sadie Scott). And she does get some of the better lines like "It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched for they are full of the trustless ideal which have been instilled in them, and each time they come into contact with the real, they are bruised and wounded." But those are not Mr. Thorne's words but W. Somerset Maugham's from, Of Human Bondage. Scott is the chief neurotic and Juliana Canfield has some fine moments as Jill, her bi-sexual roommate. Milo ( Zain Pas) and Keith (Christian Strange) are stuck with the group's obnoxious male members. Pais has to tackle his relationship with Jill and Keith.
The play's most likable and impressively portrsyed character is a non-book club member. That's Bill (Maurice Jones), Marie's downstairs neighbor. Their before and after the book club meeting scenes are also the play's most moving ones. Jones, who Marie initially avoided because he was too boring, is not boring at all. His first scene is a bit like Chekhov's gun. We see Bill ringing Marie's bell as she's preparing for the evening's meeting and hear him kind of nervously asking her to keep the noise down as he has trouble going to sleep and has work the following day. Sure enough. . .he shows up again. This tme late at night for a bit of socializing with Marie.
For all the talk and narration, this is the first time there's a flicker of genuine emotion and drama on that stage. Are the unhappy and somewhat inebriated Marie and the neighbor who yearns for connection going to end up like Frankie and Johnny in Terrence McNally's lovely and frequently reprised 2-hander?
No such luck. Thorne and Evans bring the less appealing characters back for another dance, and Alice has apparent used the Marie and Bill scene to take quick trip to Hogwarts Castle to borrow a magic wand. And so the play ends with Ruby Frankel again perched atop that book case wall to tell us what's going to happen to all these people (including herself).
The big question this leaves us with: Do we really care? Couldn't Mr. Thorne have come up with a more organic ending. Still, your time won't be wasted if Sunday prompts you to read or re-read Ann Taylor's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant or one of her very fine newer novels.
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Sunday by Jack Thorne
Directed and choreograhed by Lee Sunday Evans
Cast: Cast: Juliana Canfield (Jiil), Ruby Frankel (Alice), Maurice Jones (Bill), Zane Pais (Milo), Sadie Scott (Marie), and Christian Strange (Keith).
Scenic design by Brett J. Banakis
Costume design by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene
Lighting design by Masha Tsimring
Sound design by Lee Kinney
Original compositions by Daniel Kluger
Stage Manager: John C. Moore
Running Time: 90 minutes, no inermission
Atlantic Theater's Linda Gross Theater
. From 9/05/19; opening 9/23/19; closing 10/13/19. Tuesday @7pm, Wednesday @8pm, Thursday @8pm, Friday @8pm, Saturday @2pm and 8pm, Sunday @2pm and 7pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 8/22 press matinee
Plot summary of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
An epic family saga set in Baltimore. The Tull family siblings—Cody. Ezra, and Jenny — explore their experiences and recollections of growing up with their perfectionist mother Pearl, after their father Beck deserts them. Ezra , who remembers this frsught childhood most fondly and creates a nostalgic. family-themed restaurant where he unsuccessful attempts to bring the family together for a meal snd unity .
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