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A CurtainUp Review
Surviving Grace
David Lohrey
Believe it or not, there are a couple of Jews I'm no so fond of.
Critics do not go to the theatre hoping to be disappointed. Nobody does. We, like the rest of the audience, wait in anticipation of an exciting theatrical experience. We hope for the best, and are disappointed when it doesn't come. This is one reason for the personal nature of negative reviews. The critic cannot control the emotions that accompany the sense that one has been let down. All this is by way of explaining the almost entirely negative reaction of this critic to the production of Surviving Grace.

The play opens with Kate Griswald (Illeana Douglas) addressing the audience. We get a sense of who she is and what she has to endure as the daughter of Grace (Doris Belick) and Jack Griswald (Jerry Grayson). When Grace enters, the audience has been put at ease and is thus disposed to laugh at the kvetching one-liners that mother and daughter exchange. The TV writing suits the TV audience. Had things continued in this vein, one would have left the theatre pleased with the light entertainment concocted by author Trish Vradenburg under the direction of Jack Hofsiss.

Unfortunately, the play takes a sharp turn when Grace begins to show signs of senile dementia. Suddenly the audience that has just gotten used to seeing the actors perform in a comedy sketch, are now asked to accept them as part of an unfolding melodrama. This, the audience has trouble doing, as evidenced by the silence that falls in the auditorium. We were prepared to see Grace as the overbearing, trying, nagging mother, but now we are asked to feel sorry for her as she loses her memory and eventually her mind.

Initially pleased with Illeana Douglas's performance as the oddly eccentric daughter, we are now put off by her idiosyncrasies. Why is it, for example, that she never combs her hair or changes her clothes? All the other characters do. Why does she take phone calls in the middle of dinner, at lunch, and while in conference with her mother's doctor from subordinates who have nothing whatsoever to say? When the doctor (James Hindman) says to Kate, "You're pretty, bright, and witty," one can't help wondering what he is talking about. Unkempt and ill mannered, despite being an executive television producer, the character played by Miss Douglas isn't sufficiently sympathetic to carry the show's increasingly dramatic content. Because her mother Grace is shown as obnoxiously interfering in her first scenes, when she becomes ill, we don't feel much sympathy for her. The father goes from being ineffectual to irresponsible. When he deserts his now-institutionalized wife to play with a large-breasted bimbo (Cynthia Darlow) in Miami, we find ourselves wondering whether this is play a satire, a comedy, or a tragedy.

The music is loud and tasteless. The set designed by David Gallo is striking in its characterless-ness. Made of large gray blocks built into a featureless geometric design, the set has a way of dehumanizing the characters and dwarfing them. Hofsiss' direction is appallingly inept. The pacing is glacial. Not a single scene except Grace's first entrance has punch. Ms Vradenburg, who has tried this material out before under the title The Apple Doesn't Fall, clearly has not one but two plays that she seems intent on keeping together. The first is a situation comedy about a pushy Jewish mother who seeks to control her successful and equally dominating daughter, while the second is about how the aged are expected to find dignity in a society that treats everything as expendable. If separated and allowed to live alone, they - the two halves of the play - might find a place in the world. The playwright should learn from her characters, the Griswald's, and accept that all marriages are not made in heaven.

Written by Trish Vradenburg.
Director: Jack Hofsiss.

Cast: Illeana Douglas, Doris Belack, jerry Grayson, Armand Schultz, Cynthia Darlow, james hinndman, Linday Hart.
Set Design: David Gallo.
Costume Design: Ann Hould-Ward.
Lighting Design: Russell H. Champa.
Running Time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission
Union Square Theatre, 100 East 17th Street, New York (212) 307-7171.
Opens 3/12/2001. Open run. Tuesday - Saturday at 8pm; Sat. at 2pm; Sunday at 3pm and 7:30pm.
Reviewed by David Lohrey based on performance of 3/24/02.
The show managed to survive through June 16th.
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