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A CurtainUp Review: Trudy Blue

by Les Gutman

A circle inside a square is as good a metaphor as any for the human struggle: the real world that stands before us vs. the imagined one that lurks just beyond, the defined vs. the infinite, and so on. Mark Wendland, who won kudos for the imaginative way his set design for the recent Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman commented on the play's theme, creates a cleverly effective environment for Marsha Norman's semi-autobiographical consideration of this interior battle. Particularly evocative and realistic photo-panels of a New York co-op and the cityscape beyond are drawn about on a circular rod; the stage's exterior walls and floors form a square, painted in a shade of red that looks like fresh blood. These sets are matched by David Van Tieghem's excellent sound design, which is especially thoughtful here. 

Would that the play were as well thought out as either. 

We learn from background material that it emanates from an experience when, some years ago, the playwright was diagnosed with cancer, only to learn after much grief that she actually had "just" pneumonia. Her on-stage representative, Ginger (Polly Draper), finds herself in the reverse world, and thus not as lucky: she's told she has pneumonia only to learn later that it is cancer. Her doctor (Aasif Mandvi, who plays several other roles as well) says she has two months to live. 

The play's action, such as it is, recreates the moment Ginger tells her husband, Don (John Dossett), the bad news. Everything else we see on stage is some admixture of dream, flashback or interaction with a cast of characters seen only by her mind's eye. Ginger is a novelist who has substituted the "conversations" she has with her characters -- chief among them Trudy Blue (Sarah Knowlton) -- for any communication with the people around her: husband, daughter Beth (Julia McIlvaine) or Sue, her friendly editor (Pamela Isaacs). Ginger also chats it up with her mother (Judith Roberts), who is dead. It appears they didn't talk much while she was alive. 

Ginger finds herself, not surprisingly, conflicted. She has precious little time to sort out her life, and come to terms with the people she's been marginalizing. Marsha Norman writes about all of this as if she has something to say, as if her own peek into the chasm affords her some insight she's now sharing with us. There's not much there. For all of its putative reflectiveness, Trudy Blue comes off quite impersonal. 

Norman also seems eager to make her story theatrically hip, shredding up her time line, rewinding and replaying shards of her "moment" and juxtaposing the tangible and intangible. It's an experiment that, like the play itself, seems to lack a cogent target. Michael Sexton makes matters worse by taking this edge and frenetically directing the hell out of. He grabs the absurd angles and casts them into a funhouse mirror. A line about doctors being clowns, for instance, prompts him to give all of the medical practitioners red clown noses to wear. Why? 

The cast deserves better. Aasif Mandvi, who I know knows better, is called upon to embarrass himself. Sarah Knowton, who seems to have been given a broad license to exaggerate, generally stays within bounds, but at times would have benefited from more grounded choices. Polly Draper, somehow, is able to rise above the muck and render Ginger precisely as she should be -- frantic, overwhelmed and yet somehow a bit resilient. Dossett, too, both as her husband and as her imaginary lover (a productive bit of double casting), is on target. McIlvaine and Roberts are both terrific, and Isaacs (late of Broadway's The Life), gets Sue just right, and even gets to belt a few bars for us. 
The price a young playwright pays for winning a major prize early on (Marsha Norman won a Pulitzer among other awards for 'Night Mother in her thirties) is the baggage of comparison. Norman, at the moment at least, still seems to have a balance due. 
By Marsha Norman 

Directed by Michael Sexton 
starring Polly Draper with Sarah Knowlton, John Dossett, Aasif Mandvi, Julia McIlvaine, Pamela Isaacs and Judith Roberts 
Set Design: Mark Wendland 
Lighting Design: James Vermeulen 
Costume Design: David Zinn 
Sound Design: David Van Tieghem 
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes with no intermission 
MCC Theater, 120 West 28th Street (6th/7th Avs.) (212) 727 - 7765 
Opened December 2, 1999 Closing December 18, 1999 
Reviewed by Les Gutman 12/3/1999 based on a 12/1/1999 performance.
©Copyright 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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