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A CurtainUp Review
Tuesdays with Morrie

by Les Gutman

Jon Tenney and Alvin Epstein
J. Tenney and A. Epstein
(Photo: Dixie Sheridan)
Once (actually thrice) upon a time, Ted Koppel interviewed Morrie Schwartz (Alvin Schwartz), a Brandeis sociology professor who was dying of Lou Gehrig's Disease. It was an attention-grabber because the articulate Schwartz conveyed an unfiltered perspective on the phenomenon of staring death (and the intervening irreversible deterioration that preceded it) in the face. By chance, one of Schwartz's students from the Seventies, Mitch Albom (Jon Tenney), now a sports writer in Detroit, caught one of the interviews, called his old mentor and subsequently paid him what became the first of a series of weekly visits (always on Tuesdays) that continued until Schwartz's death. Albom's experience spawned a mega-bestseller in print, a television movie and now this play.

While the interviews (parts of which I've seen in re-runs) afford a stunning look behind the veneer of the dying process, the book (none of which I have read), and now the play, do not seriously scratch the surface. They are as much about Albom as Schwartz and, though they reënforce the point made by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her seminal work, Of Death and Dying (that there is much to be learned about life from those who are dying), they impart the lessons learned predictably and without any particular enlightenment.

What the play does do quite successfully is manipulate the audience's emotions, albeit without great subtlety. Morrie is one of those people who enjoys a good cry; Mitch is not. Albom's play (co-written with Jeffrey Hatcher) will have the desired effect for those who fall in Morrie's camp. It will also succeed in delivering a "message" to those who are suckers for simplistic self-help pablum. That's a large constituency: the book spent four years on the New York Times Bestseller List despite a review in the same paper that said, "[d]espite the obvious charm and good nature of both author and subject, in the end, the exhortations fall flat."

The same could be said for the play. But in this production at least, it offers an attraction that the book can't: two sterling performances.

Morrie is a character that would make any actor salivate, and Epstein (who first appeared on a New York stage with Marcel Marceau in 1955, found himself in the original American companies of both Waiting for Godot and Endgame and has -- among a long list of other achievements -- been a driving force at both Yale Rep and ART) takes every opportunity to strut his actorly muscles in a performance that is as accomplished as it is endearing. That the material sometimes feels contrived and often is too precious by a mile is rendered irrelevant.

Jon Tenney's Mitch is drawn with equal skill. Here we have a young man who, as he progresses to middle age, relinquishes his thoughtful aesthetic side, nurtured by Schwartz and an uncle who passed away before his time, in exchange for a faced-paced but barren life as a sports reporter. In Tenney's performance, the ray of light that sneaks under the door he has slammed shut is never fully extinguished.

Busy as a beaver director David Esbjornson stages Tuesdays effectively and faithfully, by which I mean that he does a fine job of conveying the sense of the underlying book. For my taste, finding some more substantial meaning might have been more satisfying, but that doesn't undercut his efforts; it's probably not even a reasonable expectation. Robert Brill's set design has a clean stylized feel, but the incessant shifting of motorized upstage panels and the (also motorized) arrival and departure of various set pieces was disruptive -- this is a case where less would have been more. Brian MacDevitt's lighting design, on the other hand, was perfectly apt, as was John Kilgore's sound design. Valarie Marcus's costumes, similarly, were suitable and in no way intrusive.

This may well be one of those shows (much like the original book) that finds a huge and devoted audience despite critical carping. Even those who don't fall in that category will be rewarded with some thrilling performances.
Tuesdays with Morrie
by Jeffrey Hatcher & Mitch Albom
Directed by David Esbjornson
with Alvin Epstein and Jon Tenney
Set Design: Robert Brill
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt
Costume Design: Valerie Marcus
Sound Design: John Kilgore
Running time: 90 minutes
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane (just east of 6 AV, south of 3rd ST)
Telephone: (212) 307-4100
TUES - SAT @8, SUN @ 7, SAT - SUN @3; $45-65
Opening November 19, 2002, closing March 2, 2003
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 11/20/02 performance

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