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A CurtainUp Review

Walking Off the Roof

In its eight-year history, the Signature Theatre Company has admirably fulfilled its mission of affording audiences a chance to experience a whole season of one playwright's past and present work -- and at affordable ticket prices. Two years ago this worthy endeavor moved to a handsome and comfortable new theater in the westernmost reaches of Theater Row. The fact that not every play has been an unqualified critical success, matters little since the company's aim is not to be an incubator for hits, but a live retrospective in which the playwright is an active participant.

The current John Guare season (see links at end) has brought a new venture, a pilot program of providing early-to-mid-career playwrights the same opportunities as the better known playwrights. The first of these Residency II beneficiaries is Anthony Clarvoe. He falls into the mid-career category since he's had plays produced (and well received) at a variety of regional theaters. Instead of showcasing an older play Signature has launched Residency II by supporting a world premiere.

For this critic, and probably most New Yorkers, Walking Off the Roof marks an introduction to the playwright's work. It is one of those intimate contemporary dramas about young couples in wobbly love boats that capsize when they sail into the choppy waters of infidelity. It gets off with a big bang, with the first of two illicitly paired couples (Kelly/Erin J. O'Brien and Daniel/Chris Payne Gilbert) making passionate love in the bedroom of her New York apartment. Scene two takes us to the same bed but with couple number two (Lydia/Wendy Hoopes and Brett/Paul Michael Valley). We quickly realize that Lydia is Daniel's girl friend and Brett is Kelly's husband and the plot seems poised to take a promising La Ronde turn. With Brett spooning bits of his Chinese takeout on Lydia's thigh to be sensuously consumed, the sexual temperature also gains altitude.

Unfortunately, the plot doesn't so much thicken as evolve into overly talky confrontations between Kelly and Daniel, Daniel and Lydia, Brett and Lydia and Kelly and Brett. Clarvoe does have a way with dialogue but his variations on the reasons, risks and repercussions of faithlessness fail to engage us for the full two hours. The at times Mamet-ian interchanges tend toward repetition. Scenes intended to arouse laughter were met with stony silence by audience (at least on the night I attended).

There's an interesting implication towards the end about why Kelly and Brett chose the illicit lovers they did. It seems that Daniel who's an autoshop mechanic really embodies the Brett with whom Kelly fell in love but has now forgotten. This Brett loved working on cars and yearned to be a "real man" instead of the fast-talking marketing man he has become. (A "slick Willy" variation?). By the time these psychological clues come into play your interest in these people has waned so that you're unlikely to want to analyze them any further or care wether the climax implicit in the title should be taken literally or metaphorically.

Maybe if the two women were more dynamically portrayed, you would come away from this play feeling more fully involved and satisfied. As it is the men are notably better than the women, with Paul Michael Valley giving the strongest performance.

Director Darrell Larson has given the play some nice touches. One scene in particular sharply illustrates how an action can say more than a thousand words. It begins with Kelly mad at Brett for his affair even as she enlists him in folding the sheets from which she's just washed traces of her own infidelity. It ends with Brett defiantly folding the last sheet into one of those triangular flag packages handed to a soldier's widow at military funerals. When Brett plops that sheet-flag into Kelly's arms it is a clear declaration that their marriage is as dead as if he had been killed. More action like this and less talk would contribute mightily towards the pace and pleasure of the production.

Given the small stage of the Theatre Row Theatre it might sound curmudgeonly to grumble about the scenery. However, a bare stage with perhaps a skyline scrim would have been preferable to Michael Brown's rather ugly and not particularly functional window panel design.

The Signature's founding artistic director James Houghton has created a wonderful resource for audiences and theater professionals. This offshoot from his primary mission is a commendable start towards growth and change. Unlike the core program it's not all that different from what other small companies are doing to showcase playwrights deserving wider exposure. (As a case in point another Clarvoe's play, Let's Play Two, is running concurrently with the Signature premiere under the auspices of another playwright-friendly organization, Incite Productions-- see details in production note box). An evening of one-act plays by three different playwrights fitting the Residency II profile might provide a more diverse evening and triple the opportunities for its beneficiaries. I'm confident this very smart organization will figure out the right formula in future seasons.

The American Clock
The Last Yankee/I Can't Remember Anything
Mr. Peter's Connection
Marco Polo Sings a Solo
Bosoms and Neglect
By Anthony Clarvoe
Directed by Darrell Larson
With Chris Payne Gilbert, Wendy Hoopes, Erin J. O'Brien and Paul Michael Valley
Set design: Michael Brown
Costume design: Jonathan Green
Lighting design: Jan Kroeze
Sound design: Red Ramona
Original Music: Loren Toolajian
Signature Theatre Company Residency II Pilot Program
Theatre Row Theatre, 424 W. 42nd St. (212/244-8529 )
2/02/99-2/28/99; opened 2/14/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/14 performance

LET'S PLAY TWO by Anthony Clarvoe is at Altered Stages
212, W. 29th St. (212/560-5637).
The "two" of the title are two baseball fans.

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