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A CurtainUp Review

Never again will I trust that mystic cliche 'military necessity".
---Judge Francis Biddle in letter to Stanford Professor Shiko Furukawa, regarding his book about the Japanese internments during the second world war.
Fritz Weaver as Judge Francis Biddle
(Photo: Joan Marcus )
Though the pivotal figure in Trying is a judge, the title has nothing to do with the trying associated with courtrooms. Playwright Joanna McClelland Glass lets the cantankerous 81-year-old Judge Francis Biddle explain it during his first encounter with 25-year-old Sarah Schorr, the latest in a string of secretaries. As he puts it, "we can't help but find each other extremely trying." And indeed they do. But theater goers will find nothing trying about watching this affectionate memory play about a well-born, wealthy American who threw in his political lot with Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal administration, served as his Attorney-General and as a judge at the post World War II Nuremberg trials.

The dictated excerpts from Biddle's letters which are woven into the script evoke bits and pieces from the Roosevelt-Truman era. They also touch on his regret about not fighting harder to stop the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Biddle's final comment on his part in this sorry page from our history -- "never again will I trust that mystic cliche military necessity" -- actually drew numerous audible gasps of painful recognition from the audience at the matinee I attended. Aside from this all too evocative moment, however, this is not a political play or a biodrama, but a new take on the odd couple genre. The bittersweet May-December friendship involves a patrician American whose distinguished life is drawing to a close and a young woman raised in much humbler circumstances in Saskatchewan but who nevertheless has dreams for distinguishing herself as a writer.

With the well-known actor Fritz Weaver playing the disorganized and frail Biddle and an unknown actress named Kati Brazda cast as the young but efficient secretary, it's understandable that some people will expect this to be more of a one-person play than a two-hander, with the second character written into the script mainly as a sounding board (as in QED). Weaver does get the best dialogue and is terrifically touching and witty as the octogenarian who, in his own words, now functions "somewhere between lucidity and senility" and who, despite constant lapses into wit is poignantly aware that "the exit light is blinking over the door, and the door is ajar." But make no mistake about it, the reason Trying rises above corny sentimentality is as much due to Brazda's Sarah as Weaver's Biddle. Weaver's may be the showier and more bravura performance, but as Sarah can't be browbeaten by the Judge, so Brazda is much more than a foil for Weaver.

Naturally, Ms. Glass, who actually was Biddle's secretary during his last year ((he was born in 1886, died in 1968), also deserves credit for her smartly written drama. She dramatizes the boss-secretary relationship so that Sarah's crisis (a marriage that leaves her feeling lonely, a pregnancy that threatens her writing dream) is as important as Biddle's (declining health and impending death).

Most admirably the playwright does not over-sentimentalize her story with hokey touches such as an uncharacteristic final hug or other breakdown in either character's basic reserve. The closest they get to actually touching is when Sarah rubs his athritis crippled hands with Ben-Gay -- but not until he has first rejected her offer to do so with an outraged "You are bold as brass!"

The fact that Ms. Glass avoids having the many facts about Biddle's personal and public life that she weaves into six scenes that class November 1967 through June 1968 feel shoehorned further testifies to her craftsmanship. Sandy Shiner, who also directed the play's much praised premiere at Chicago's Victory Gardens, abets this fluidity. Despite all the background information, people hoping that Trying will enlighten them about Biddle as substantatively as a biography would will be disappointed in this play's focus on the grumpy old man charm. And, while there's no denying that the final scene is moving, it would have been nice to have things end on a not quite so predictable note.

Typical of most shows at the Promenade Theatre, this New York premiere has been given a handsome production. Jeff Bauer's recreation of the office on top of the Biddle garage is finely detailed, appropriately messy for a predictable clean sweep once the efficient Sarah takes charge. Carolyn Cristofani has provided Sarah with a new outfit for every scene. Even with a less lavish set and fewer costume changes, Trying is the sort of play that should eventually do well in many small, low-budget regional theaters. The real challenge for future productions, however, will be to find actors to bring Weaver's and Brazda's shading and warmth to the Judge and his scrappy secretary.

Written by Joanna McClelland Glass
Directed by Sandy Shinner
Cast: Fritz Weaver and Kati Brazda
Set Design: Jeff Bauer
Costume Design: Carolyn Cristofani
Lighting Design: Jacqueline Reed
Sound Design: Andrew Hopson
Running time: 2 hours plus 15 minute intermission
>Promenade, 2162 Broadway (At West 76th Street)212-239-6200
From 9/28/04; opens 10/13/04.
Tue - Sat at 8pm; Wed, Sat, Sun at 3pm.
Tickets,$26.25 - $66.25.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on October 9th press performance
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