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A CurtainUp Review

Down the Garden Paths

shoulda', woulda', coulda'
-- Stella Dempsey Garden's one-two-three sumup of her son Arthur's award winning book Probable Paths.

Eli Wallach and
Anne Jackson
To take the above quoted simplification of a more convoluted text about alternate realities a step further, this shoulda' been one of those plays one tends to dismiss as yet another dysfunctional family tragi-comedy. Yet it transcends its familiar and frail elements by virtue of a superior cast, especially Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, and a clever structure -- a triple replay of a ceremony at which the family scribe, Arthur Garden (John Shea) is honored with an award followed by three versions of the celebratory family get-together after the ceremony; the variations prompted by a long ago traumatic event at Lake Kiamesha in the Catskills.

With its Borscht belt comedy team leads (Wallach as Sid Garden and Jackson as Stella Dempsey Garden), plus Jerry Stiller as a nutty professor who knows his way around quantum mechanics this woulda' left audiences with little except a few chuckles if it didn't also set off some general reflections. After all, the "what-if" factor, the paths or "alternate reality" taken and not taken, plays a big part in all our lives.

Down the Garden Paths coulda' avoided turning the celebration of Arthur's award into such a depressing array of accumulated resentment, guilt and regret. Its everything but the kitchen sink approach to dishing up family secrets coulda' avoided tossing in a gay bashing situation (shades of the Matthew Shepard murder) that confuses the central issue of the cause and effect of the accident in which one young Garden was drowned. It also forces John Shea to rant and whine to the point of losing the audience's sympathy and having to win it back quicker than the blink of an eye.

Like Stella Dempsey Garden, Ann Meara built her reputation as the long-time half of the popular Stiller and Meara act. Her playwrighting is a late bloomer success story (her debut play After-Plays, which also featured a show biz couple, won her the Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Award). Despite some wrong paths taken, a ramble down Ms. Meara's Garden Paths is filled with pleasures:
  • Besides the real-life acting couple who portray the Gardens, it's fun to watch the double mishpoche casting. Jerry Stiller's Herschel Strange, benefactor of the Strange Award that sets the Garden family's confrontations in motion, is a deliciously funny other worldly presence in three screened segments of his life and times, starting with his falling off his bike and declaring that "Everything in life is balance."

  • Meara and Stiller's daughter Amy and the Wallach's daughter Roberta play double roles. Amy portrays the Gardens' ditzy, therapy espousing daughter Sharon in the first segment and their fresh out of rehab granddaughter Jodie in the middle section. Roberta metamorphoses from their unhappy daughter-in-law Claire (she's got plenty to weep about -- an autistic child, a cheating husband she likens to "a malignant growth", her own affair with Arthur which leaves her frustrated but makes him "feel Presidential" -- don't ask!) into an equally unhappy friend of Arthur's. She tries, unsuccessfully, to keep the Gardens' increasingly acrimonious interaction about her murdered brother (and Arthur's lover) from getting out of hand.

  • To avoid nepotism, we have John Shea (who actually looks as if he could be Anne Jackson's son). There are also Leslie Lyles as Arthur's biological clock obsessed wife in part one, and as Jodie's mother in part two and Adam Grupper as the brother who in the first two segments owes his life to Arthur -- though during the middle reunion we see what happened when he was not pulled out of Lake Kiamesha in time to avoid permanent brain damage. All three perform admirably in their overly oy veh roles.

  • The most fun aspects of the play are in Ms. Meara's sly allusions. She tips her pen to the characters in the play's prestigious Broadway neighbor, Copenhagen (Our Review). People old enough to remember will recognize Milton Berle as the inspiration for the recently deceased comic, Shmeckie Cabot, whose eulogy is as much on the senior Garden's mind as what's happening at the family reunion. (I should mention that while the Wallachs tend to attract golden agers, Thursday night's performance was attended mostly by people under forty-five).

  • The staging supports the play's format. The awards scenes and the screen projected sequences are the same but with variations. The only constant is the projected date of the ceremony -- November 9, 2000 which, besides being the show's first performance date is also the date (in 1938) when Hitler's thugs went on the rampage known as Kristall Nacht. Given Herschel's European beginnings and the playwright's liking for veiled allusions, this may not be mere coincidence. If you keep your eye on the pictures in James Youman's handsome set of Arthur Garden's apartment, you'll note that they too change with each replay. While Arthur and his dad remain in their special events tuxedos, David Murin dresses Anne Jackson in three different outfits (she looks terrific in all).

The Gardens are not particularly lovable characters. As for the Wallach-Jackson and Stiller-Meara clan -- now that's a different matter altogether. I'd welcome an invitation to a party attended by both families. Maybe they could invite the Torns and the Footes and make it a truly memorable and more cheerful family affair.

By Anne Meara
Directed by David Saint
Cast: Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, John Shea, Jerry Stiller, Amy Stiller, Leslie Lyles, Adam Grupper, Roberta Wallach, Angela Pietropinto
Set Design: James Youmans
Lighting Design: Michael Lincoln
Costume Design: David Murin
Sound Design:Chris Bailey
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission
Minetta Lane, 18 Minetta lane, (6th /Macdougal Sts), 307-4100
11/19/2000-1/28/1002; opened 11/19/2000

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on performance11/30/00

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