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A CurtainUp Review
Bottom of the World
By Elyse Sommer
And emerge-emerge Thurber did. In Scarcity produced at the Atlantic Theater's Main Stage in 2007 she again proved herself to be an unflinching observer of the life style of an all too large underclass in a society that has always defined itself as classless. Bottom of the World, which is receiving its world premiere at the Atlantic's Stage II, is Thurber's most complex work to date. The western Massachusetts setting in which she's put her characters in the past is now used as a fictional counterpoint to the world of a present day New Yorker, Abby (Crystal A. Dickinson), dealing with the death of her sister Kate (Jessica Love)), a novelist.
I'm not being a spoiler here. Abby's loss is brought up in the first scene, and Kate is not just a name but a real presence which is why she's listed in the program's cast list. She's not so much a playful, ghostly intruder shades of Noel Coward's Elvira in Blithe Spirit, but a novelist who through her last book helps Abby to understand life's uncertainties and come to terms with her grief — and realize that we all move through youth, middle age and death in different ways and time frames.
Fully populated as both the New York and Massachusetts scenes are, this is a large cast in these bottom line conscious times — even with four roles purposefully created for doubling. Thus, kudos to the Atlantic Theater Company for supporting this premiere with a splendid cast and to the actors for their emotionally nuanced performances.
Crystal A. Dickinson who was one of the standouts in one of last season's best new plays (Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris) and Jessica Love, whose work is new to me, manage to make their sporadic interactions come across as natural and believable rather than too preciously fantastical. Brendan Griffin and Brandon J. Dirden, the other single role actors, are terrific as the young men Kate invents for her chapters on courtship and marriage.
Under Caitriona McLaughlin's fluid direction the double-cast actors display a firm grip on the mood and flow of their segues from their real New York roles and problems to their personas in Kate's fictional but factually inspired novel. Thus we have Abigail's best friend Susan (Aubrey Dollar), a successful journalist, caught between comforting Abigail and dealing with her parents (Kristin Griffith and Peter Maloney) being headed for divorce after 35 years of togetherness. Griffith seamlessly navigates from Louise, the brittle, somewhat whacky Upper East side matron who fights encroaching age with self-help books and a lover, to Christine, an also age-aware but more grounded New England wife. Peter Maloney, an Atlantic Theater regular who always does fine work, is the somewhat over-the-top discarded New York husband Marshall, and quite touching as Christine's husband Paul and Josh's father.
Dollar creates a second very engaging character in Susan. Her wedding night scene with Griffin's Josh is one of the play's most delightful episodes. Though this and all the Massachussets scenes are somewhat reminiscent of Our Town, Thurber's take is her own
Another dual character linking the New York and New England stories, is Gina (KK Moggie) who stirs Abigail 's desire to live and love even though she feels guilty to be alive when her sister is not. As Sally, Moggie is the girl whose love Griffin's Eli can't win.
While characters of previous Thurber plays I've seen have tended not to be very likeable (though not easily forgettable), the characters this time around are much more sympathetic. Adding to the pleasures of the insightful script and the high quality of the performances, is the original blue grass music performed by a live duo (Alexander Sovroonsky on fiddle and Bennett Sullivan on banjo and mandolin). The musicians positioned unobtrusively but within sight of the audience on Walt Spangler's imaginitive if somewhat messy looking set, which may be intentional to reflect the state of Abigail's mind.
Given the issues explored this is not light, escape fare. But it's about life, and life is complicated.