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LETTERS TO EDITOR
by Les Gutman
This is the third play by Adam Rapp to reach New York stages over the last year and a half. (Reviews of both previous efforts are linked below.) There is a certain excitement that one experiences quite quickly when exposed to his plays -- it doesn't take long to recognize a truly gifted writer who has an emotionally (and otherwise) quite powerful story to tell. In Nocturne, our enthusiasm was tempered by structure: the play's monologue-driven script rendered it more literary than dramatic. In Faster, there was abundant drama but the story, perhaps too graphically depicted, devolved into what Elyse Sommer called a "surreal muddle". This latest effort progresses on both fronts,
If you remember Dana Carvey's Church Lady, you have a basic introduction to Rilthe (Barbara Eda-Young), the stern matriarch of the Klieg family. Her husband, Sloan (Guy Boyd), has been impaired, both mentally and physically, by an accident, and she is now the driving force of the family's cross-making business. (They manufacture ceramic crosses in a kiln in the basement.) The elder son, Amos (Michael Gladis), is a dutiful lieutenant; daughter Ephesia (Gretchen Cleevely) and younger son Avis (Michael Stadelmann) are reluctant privates in the enterprise. The latter pair resist their mother's fervor: Ephesia possessing a intellectual and (budding sexual) curiosity that doesn't square with Rilthe's brand of dogma; the tongue-tied, seemingly weak Avis more interested in basketball. Such interests are verboten in Rilthe's paradigm.
But this is not just a family torn apart by inter-generational differences in spiritual zeal. Rilthe's belief system veers into the realm of a particularly pernicious form of racist religiosity in which those of other skin color, beliefs or sexual persuasions, not to mention just those suffering from garden-variety infirmities, are to be shoved under the rug if not discarded altogether. (Along the way, we also see evidence of other forms of evil: incest, quasi-Satanic ritual and so on. And I forgot to mention the other daughter, Chick (Pauline Boyd), suffering from a "deformity," who's kept sequestered upstairs in the attic.)
Trueblinka's title, the kiln and the Teutonic family name are not the only markers of this holocaust drama, writ small. But they are enough to set the dark, creepy, metaphor-heavy story in motion. It falls to a visiting peddler of religious articles, Mr. Smallwood (Andrew Garman), though imperfectly drawn, to uncover the skeleton's in the Klieg family closet.
Rapp's writing may suffer a bit from the free-flowing pen of a novelist (he has written five novels as well as a boatload of plays), but here, under Simon Hammerstein's engaging and effective direction, it remains compelling throughout -- no mean feat for a two and one-half hour show presented at 11 P.M. The story, shadowy by design, is clearly told, and the characters are developed efficiently.
This latter is buoyed enormously by a particularly fine cast. Ms. Eda-Young couldn't be more convincing as the straight-laced, autocratic Rilthe. There's not an ounce of archness in her performance, and that's essential to buying this true-believer. Ephesia is her most potent foil, and Gretchen Cleevely accords her the requisite defiance without eclipsing the natural immaturity of late adolescence. The quieter Avis is a more atmospheric character, but Matthew Stadelmann finds just the right hurt puppy dog tone for the son who just can't please his master. Michael Gladis is less of a force but fine as his mother's seemingly blind-faithed deputy who has a few secrets of his own, while Guy Boyd's Sloan is excellent as the father who is now lost in a world gone mad. Smallwood is his own enigma, but quite believable in Andrew Garman's hands. Even more of a mystery is Chick; Pauline Boyd is more often heard (moaning) than seen, and when she finds her way onstage it is in a ghost-like state, obscured by a spooky hood.
Production elements are quite powerful in this production, from John Conner's cross-heavy set that relies on a handful of rearranged benches to support each scene, to Martin Lopez's apt costumes, David Zeffren's moody lighting and Todd Polenberg's strong sound design (supported by Shara Worden's suitably church-like music.
It's late at night, creepy and unsettling, but take a nap if you must. This is theater worth staying up for.
LINKS TO REVIEWS OF OTHER ADAM RAPP PLAYS
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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