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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Fortunately, Ellen's got her loyal-to-a-fault boyfriend and, more importantly, a diverse assortment of friends. So how miserable can things ever really get?
Now, if you're hearing the ever perky "I'll be There for You" piping away in the background, you're probably not alone. With its upstairs/downstairs apartment jumping, misunderstandings, and we're all in this together clinches, The Wake does occasionally feel like an elongated episode of Friends skewed toward a single character and made politically relevant. (Whatever else you want to say about these characters, they live in the real world.)
Directed by Leigh Silverman and in its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (en route to the Berkeley Rep), The Wake is painful on a number of levels. As we watch Heidi Schreck's Ellen systematically lose her friends, her lovers, and her optimism, Kron expects us to look to our nation and see a comparable freefall. Watching these scenes, so finely calibrated, so consistently gut-wrenching, we witness a beautifully synched cast led by a skilled director.
Uplifting, The Wake most assuredly ain't, but it aims for the gut and rarely misses a punch. We meet our players on Thanksgiving of 2000. The vote counters are still tallying ballots in Florida and a warpath treading Ellen can barely tear herself away from the TV. Largely oblivious is our heroine to the occasion or to the fact that certain members of her "puppy pile of people" (a phrase which the character uses and one which made this critic want to empty his stomach) occasionally would like to disengage. Among them: Kayla (Andrea Frankle), a fellow writer and sister to Ellen's boyfriend Danny (Carson Elrod); Kayla's wife Laurie (Danielle Skraastad), a Midwesterner who would prefer not to talk politics and who bristles whenever Ellen refers to her as Kayla's partner instead of wife.
Also present is Judy (Deirdre O'Connell), a Peace Corps worker not overstocked with social graces who spends most of her timer smoking on the fire escape. Wet blanket though Judy may be, Ellen visits her regularly on the fire escape and even offers to accompany Judy to her mother's funeral. That's our Ellen, as true a friend as you'll find, a gatherer, a people helper, a woman with multiple jobs who doesn't mind living in a cramped and slightly crappy apartment (the warmth practically flows out of David Korins design) as long as it's always spilling over with people. Elrod's ever-quipping Danny is Ellen's partner and her match. He gets into the friend pile, rarely utters a serious word and somehow keeps Ellen grounded. Sort of.
As the country moves into &mdash and past &mdash Sept. 11, Ellen begins an affair with a Cambridge filmmaker, Amy (Emily Donahoe), a relationship that Danny permits because he figures Ellen has to "play it out" before coming to the realization that he's the one she should be with. Judy ends up adopting her teen-aged African American niece Tessa (Miriam F. Glover) and bringing her to Washington D.C. The girl is taking a government class, and she makes the mistake of saying of President Bush "I can't understand why everyone is against him."
Ellen proves to be a far better talker than listener, and her friends are nursing earlier Ellen inflicted bruises while collecting new ones. Of course, a character who comes off as this independent (and, yes, self serving) doesn't necessarily need someone to reach out and comfort her. Or does she? The first-meet scene between Schreck and Donahoe's Amy is a careful and rather remarkable dance, with Ellen being knocked off her platform by new emotions. As the Ellen-Amy relationship deepens, its second act culmination proves heartbreaking. Less so, the Danny-Ellen stand-off. Elrod possesses a definite funny guy/regular guy appeal (Going back to the Friends rubric, I thought of Matthew Perry), but the character is a largely underwritten cipher, and the showdown between Schreck and Elrod is as inevitable as it is hollow.
Striking the performance's truest note would be O'Connell who can play the humorless oddball as effortlessly as she does the smart listener. Judy is not a character designed to punch holes in your heart the way Ellen, Amy or even Kayla will, but O'Connell's tough eyes and practical bearing mask plenty of pain.
With Judy et al's help, Ellen is heading toward a realization: about herself, her friends, her outlook and, yes, her country. None of it is especially upbeat, and our Ellen will be pretty darned alone when she finally gets it. Perhaps Kron would find some comfort in the knowledge that there is life after Bush, although I can't imagine Ellen bring much more content in Obama's America.