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A CurtainUp Review

From Above

This is the third of Tom Donaghy's plays I've seen. There's no question that he's got a feel for the ordinary people on the lower rung of the middle class ladder. I liked his last play Minutes From the Blue Route better than a lot of other critics did. Both this and his previous play Northeast Local were given handsome and solidly cast productions, by Lincoln Center and the Atlantic Theater Company. Both, while flawed, nevertheless showcased Donaghy's talent for strong and eloquent dialogue that is often funny and heavily tinged with Mamet-like rhythms.

Like its predecessors, From Above is again about ordinary lower middle class people. This time Donaghy's has come up with a potentially intriguing mix of realism and fantasy. The realistic element is, as in his previous plays, driven by current economic fact. In this case a casino referendum promises to bring money, excitement to the shabby lakeside resort where the action unfolds -- and new problems. On a more surrealistic level the play is a cross between the story of Rip Van Winkle and The Return of Martin Guerre. Its Rip/Martin is a mysterious young stranger named Jimmy (Neal Huff) who arrives seemingly out of nowhere to lay claim to the identity of the dead seventy-two-year-old husband of a thirty-something waitress.

The widow Evvy, is sensitively played by Patricia Kalember, (best known for her role in "thirtysomething" on TV), is still grieving for the husband who's been dead for some time. He may have seemed old and fussy in the tidyness that caused him to constantly sweep dustballs from under the couch of their lakeside cottage but there was apparently nothing old or fussy about him as a lover on top of it. Evvy's neighbors, friends and co-workers at the local hotel want her to get on with her life, especially Linny (Meg Gibson) and Roz (Mary Testa) . The women are also involved in promoting the pro-casino vote. To round out the cast there's Peaches (Stephen Mendillo) and unemployed carpenter with a thick down-East accent and Sean (Stephen Stout) a social worker, the first a would-be suitor for Linny and the latter for Evvy.

While no one's likely to believe that Jimmy really is the dead husband despite his eerie replication of everything about that husband except his appearance, it's clear that the vulnerable widow is going to buy into the fantasy. Unfortunately, it also becomes clear before the intermission, that From Above is not going to rise above the plethora of portents and extraneous props that either go nowhere or are over-explained. Some examples:
  • For starters there's a long kiss between Linny and Evvy, followed by a pregnant pause but never elaborated upon again by word or action. There are two other pregnant pause kisses. The second is once again planted on Evvy's lips (by the romantically inclined social worker). The third kisser is Roz and marks the end of the Evvy-Jimmy fantasy.

    In the foreshadowing and extraneous reference department, we have talk about an intruder in the usually safe-to-keep-the-door-open community which makes the final revelations about Jimmy less than surprising and unnecessarily detailed. There's also the helicopter buzzing and talk about an artist selling aerial view paintings whose chief purpose seems to be to give the play its title. Two are actual props, having been purchased by Evvy who seems hardly well off enough to buy even cheap art.

    Those aerial paintings bring us to Derek McLane's set which nicely evokes the sense of a low-cost lake bungalow, (a feeling ably supported by Donald Holder's lighting). However, the playwright has given the designer a cumbersome shopping list of props to plant all over the place for bits of business that aren't always very relevant. Take the oversized chest that turns out to hold a standing bathtub which is unpacked for a scene that's more silly than surreal. As I found myself looking around that set wondering when the various boxes would be opened, the rug opened up, the blender put to use, and also admiring McLane's thrifty recycling of the two trees from The Maiden's Prayer seen earlier this season at the Vineyard, one thing t became clear: If I was paying this much attention to the set, the playwright had failed to keep me involved with his characters.
Flawed as it is, From Above continues to demonstrate that Donaghy is a playwright worth watching and that one of these days he'll come up with a play that lives up to its promise. In the meantime, special praise is due to the director David Warren for keeping thing moving at a crisp tempo. All six members of the cast acquit themselves very well, with Mary Testa giving a particularly acute and comic portrayal of Roz. I also liked the device of the home-movie (by film maker Andy Clayman). It underscores the ordinariness and togetherness of this group of friends even though it also emphasized the final impression that there's less rather than more to these characters than we've been led to expect.

Interview with set designer Derek McLane

Minutes From the Blue Route

Maiden's Prayer

By Tom Donaghy
Directed by David Warren
Starring Patricia Kalember; with Neal Huff, Mary Testa, Meg Gibson, Stephen Mendillo, Stephen Stout
Set: Derek McLane
Costumes: Laura Bauer
Lighting: Donald Holder
Original music: by John Gromada
Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. (212/279-4200)
3/10/98-5/10/98; opening 4/23/9 Seen 4/26/98 and reviewed 4/28/98 by Elyse Sommer

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