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A CurtainUp Review
The Three-Cornered Moon
Just like that. No similes, no metaphors, no references to my soul? You just love me? Marvelous. Marvelous.
--- Elizabeth
Maggie Lacey  and Andrew McGinn
Maggie Lacey and Andrew McGinn (Photo: Eden Keller )
If the name Gertrude Tonkonogy doesn't ring a bell, you've got plenty of company. The author of the 1933 play with which the Keen Company is launching its third season wrote only two plays, of which The Three-Cornered Moon, written in two and a half weeks when she was twenty-four, was the most successful.

Like many college graduates during the Great Depression, Tonkonogy worked as a secretary. Since her job was in a producer's office it included reading scripts -- enough bad ones to convince her that she could do better. She was right. Her fledgling effort instantly jumped from page to Broadway Stage (The Cort Theater). That quick success (Ruth Gordon starred in the Broadway production and a movie with Claudette Colbert followed) meant she could afford to marry her doctor fiancé (the model for the romantic lead of the play?).

While Tonkonogy has been credited for inspiring comedies like You Can't Take It With You and a long list of screwball movie comedies, it is these later plays and movies that are known to theater and film buffs. Gertrude Friedberg-nee-Tonkonogy lived happily but pretty much unfamously ever after in Brooklyn, writing short stories and a science fiction novel and substitute teaching at Stuyvesant High School.

At first glance Tonkonogy's three-cornered romance may seem to have been dusted off as a timely link to the ups and downs of today's economy. People whose stock portfolio have slimmed down alarmingly may indeed identify with the story of a Brooklyn girl and her family propelled by the Great Depression from their goofy and comfortably upper middle-class existence into a more reality-based life style. But the appeal of the play goes beyond Rimplegar family's fall from economic stability.

The story is unashamedly dated -- three acts, lots of talk, the inevitable maid in black and white uniform, a decidedly non-feminist view of marriage, with a slap and brusque manner sending a girl's heart into a tailspin. The Three-Cornered Moon's real timeliness thus stems not from its content but from its fit with the now as then mood of the audience. As New Yorkers in 1933, reeling from the shock of bank closings and collapsed fortunes, were ripe for a night at the theater which would allow them to see things to laugh at about the new situations they had to face, New Yorkers in 2002 are looking to the theater for release from tension through laughter.

Like his revival of The Voice of the Turtle, director Carl Forsman has made no attempt to update the original script. Except for turning the intermission between the second and third act into a brief pause he has also stayed with the three-act, leisurely paced format. Consequently, the characters, all of whom according to a granddaughter quoted at a Barnard alumni web page, are based on the author's own eccentric family, must come to life as written more than seventy years ago. And so they do . Although the performances fall somewhat short of the madcap antics that are the hallmarks of screwball comedies, the actors nevertheless manage to reveal the never-dated human qualities and complexities underneath the humorous surface.

To establish the self-absorbed eccentricity of the Rimplegars neither Mom Nellie's (Mikel Sarah Lambert) three sons (Douglas-Greg McFadden, Kenneth-Nick Toren, Ed-Denis Butkus) or daughter Elizabeth (Maggie Lacey) take much note of the obviously troublesome telegrams that Nellie keeps receiving. Well before a telegram lands in the hands of each offspring, the audience knows that financial disaster has struck by virtue of Nellie having squandered every penny of her late husband's fortune in one unwise stock market investment after another, leaving the children to paddle the family canoe.

It's just as obvious to the audience that the serious business of going to work and maintaining the house is going to result in some zany business; also that Elizabeth's novelist fiancé Donald (Christopher Duva) has a rival in Dr. Alan Stevens (Andrew McGinn), the only sensible character to enter the Rimplegear home. No matter. Suspense isn't what this comedy is about. It's the leisurely shift between the points of view represented by the two men at the base of the Elizabeth-Donald-Alan triangle and the fact that the self-centered Donald is never turned into a villain that make this revival endearing and fun to watch

Maggie Lacey is hardly on a par with such madcap comediennes as Claudette Colbert and Rosalyn Russell but she does charmingly and convincingly convey her disillusionment with the lofty aims that led to her engagement to Donald and her growing affection and admiration for the more earthbound Alan. Christopher Duva is amusing as the novelist who, during Elizabeth's still airy-fairy stage, is willing to go along with her nutty double suicide scheme but is repelled by her growing interest in a more conventional life with babies. Andrew McGinn nicely embodies the yearning of the good doctor.

Typical of plays of this period, there are throw-away parts which offer little beyond a certain authenticity. The uniformed maid (Yetta Gottesman) whose job must be taken over by Mother Rimplegear is a case in point, Kenneth's girl friend Kitty (Kathleen Kaefer) is another. The latter's one appearance other than an unseen telephone presence, is actually a case of genuine high jinx comedy but, isolated as it is from the more measured performances all around, it comes off as somewhat superfluous. These quibbles, aside, this production like previous Keen offerings is worth seeing. Where else can $15 buy you two hours of watching a full-bodied cast in colorful, period perfect outfits, and on a handsome set that is amazing in its fine detail and numerous exits despite a small stage.

the Good Thief
The Voice of the Turtle

Three-Cornered Moon
Written by Gertrude Tonkonogy
Directed by Carl Forsman
Cast: Maggie Lacey (Elizabeth Rimplegar), Christopher Duva (Donald), Andrew McGinn (Dr. Alan Stevens), Mikel Sarah Lambert (Mrs. Rimplegar), Nick Toren (Kenneth Rimplegar), Greg McFadden (Douglas Rimplegar), Denis Butkus (Ed Rimplegar), Kathleen Kaefer (Kitty) and Yetta Gottesman (Jenny).
Set Design: Nathan Heverin
Costume Design: Theresa Squire
Sound Design: Stefan Jacobs
Lighting Design: Josh Bradford
Running time: 2 hours, plus one 15-minute intermission
Keen Company at Blue Heron Theatre, 123 E. 24th St. (Park/Lexington Aves) 212-560-7284
9/04/02-9/28/02; opening 9/08/02
Wed-Sat at 8pm and Sundays at 5pm; instead of 9/11/02, special matine 9/28 at 3pm -- $15.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on September 7th performance.
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