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A CurtainUp Review

The Maiden's Prayer

With The Maiden's Prayer which opened Sunday night at the Vineyard Theatre Nicky Silvers has concocted a cake flavored with trenchant dialogue, self-destructive romantic fixations and unresolved family issues. If it's a bit short on the yeast that would make it rise to the heights of such previous hits as Pterodactyls, Raised in Captivity and My Marriage to Ernest Hemingway (all born at the Vineyard) and The Food Chain blame it on the playwright's move in a less laugh meter conscious direction.

You see, for all its familiar hallmarks and laugh-out-loud moments, The Maiden's Prayer is a sad story. It's not a tragedy as in Greek tragedy but its laughter is measured out almost desperately to offset the dark and irreparably knotty rivalry between two sisters -- Libby (Patricia Clarkson) and Cynthia (Joanna Going ) -- over Taylor (Christopher C. Fuller) the man they both love (or think they do). To complete Silvers' circle of dovetailing neurotics there's Taylor's childhood friend Paul (Geoffrey Nauffts) who longs to be more than just a friend, and a "fifth wheel" character named Andrew (Daniel Jenkins) who pops in and out of the proceedings to re-energize the laugh barometer when it stands still.

These then are the praying maidens drawn together by the strains of the wedding recessional that serve as the musical equivalent of a raised curtain. Could this be the happy end leading to a flashback romantic play? Decidedly not. While Silver's concerns here, as in previous ventures, swirl around unrequited romantic yearnings, his five characters are all barking up the wrong tree (there is a tree on this stage that prompts this cliche) in their quest for love and escape from loneliness.

Yes, Silver's wedding cake of a play has a bride and groom with great expectations for a new life. Cynthia is happily pregnant since she knows with handsome Taylor as the father she will have a beautiful baby. Taylor, happy in love and eager to rewrite his troubled family history, has agreed to live in the house where his parents expectations came acropper and left him prone to drink and restless unease. Trouble is that Cynthia is less in love with him than her image of him and also the fact that he is a prize to be snatched from Libby who met and fell in love with him first (at an AA support group).

Even before we meet these newlyweds, we're introduced to Taylor's childhood neighbor and friend Paul, another second-generation neurotic. Next on stage is the rejected sister Libby. As these two get acquainted by unpacking their emotional hangups in a rapid fire verbal exchange we laugh even as we realize that Libby especially is a diver poised to leap into the abyss of self-destructiveness. . By the time Cynthia and Taylor join the "S.O.B." -- ("the wedding coordinator's term for sister of the bride" ) -- and the best friend and pre-empted best man, (signal #1 about Cynthia's control freak tendencies ), the situation is clear. Libby may be the most obvious hysterical eccentric, but none of the others are poster children for mental health.

The wedding over and the idiosyncracies decked out for us, the rest of the evening passes in a whirlwind of overlapping scenes depicting personal crises, revelations and confrontations. For added comic relief there's the fifth cast member Andrew (Daniel Jenkins), one of Paul's dizzying array of pickup lovers. Unfortunately his fast-talking humor, funny as it is, is annoyingly allowed to intrude on the more serious scenes. Whether attributable to the director or playwright, this is one of the play's missteps, especially since this shallower-than-shallow flibbertigibbet who measures a lover's appeal by the size and comforts of his apartment is the one character who emerges somewhat wiser and stronger. The other four survive, but at great compromise and without benefit of real wisdom.

Despite the above caveat about his middle of the play intrusiveness, Jenkins gives one of the evening's best performances. Patricia Clarkson, who also appeared in Raised in Captivity, plumbs the role of Libby for all its acerbic and exaggerated wit without sacrificing the darker and sadder aspects of her character. A memorable performance! Joanna Going gives the high-strung Cynthia a nice, Harriet Craig reminiscent edge of brittleness and mean spiritedness. As the lonely sexual athlete Geouffrey Nauffts seems to have imported his low-key befuddlement as the wide-eyed innocent abroad in June Moon (see link at end of this review). Unfortunately Paul would have made a stronger impression if played in the manner of Maxie (the gay piano player in June Moon ) than Fred Stevens the naive songwriter. Christopher C. Fuller plays Taylor with the innocuousness befitting the object of Paul, Cynthia and Libby's romantic longings who is not the face others see "but a weak and needy cipher."

Director Evan Yionoulis keeps the overlapping scenes moving forward at a brisk pace abetted by Mike Yionoulis' original between-scenes music. She has also blessed herself with a set designer, Derek McLane, who has captured the play's mournful mood and brought all the required set pieces to the stage unobtrusively and with great imaginativeness. Notably, there's the tree talked about in our interview (see link at end of review) to provide a stable presence for the" Connecticut-to-New York-to-Connecticut scene shift, a drop-down Murphy bed arrangement that efficiently and effectively delivers other needed set pieces and a slide-out section of the house. There's also Donald Holder's lighting which makes the Connecticut house appear and reappear and bathes the stage in a wonderfully moody bluish green.

To sum up, The Maiden's Prayer is and isn't Nicky Silver as his fans have come to know him. Contrary to the opening wedding recessional's association with hope and happiness, it is not a play which answers any of its "maidens' prayers". The laughs are less frequent and, to return to our opening metaphor, the audience is left with more of the flavor of sourdough bread than the sweet taste of a cake. Since the playwright is only thirty-seven and has justifiably earned a solid reputation for his incisive wit, anyone who believes that a writer's career should accommodate trial and error, should credit Mr. Silver for his courage to move out of the fast lane of success to venture into more serious territory. If The Maiden's Prayer is not a totally successful first step in this direction, it is nevertheless a bigger step towards growth and change than any taken by the "maidens" in this play. I for one will want to see what he does next.

Derek McLane interview
June Moon review

By Nicky Silver
Directed by Evan Yionoulis
With Patricia Clarkson, Joanna Going, Christopher C. Fuller, Daniel Jenkins and Geoffrey Nauffts
Sets: Derek McLane
Lighting: Donald Holder
Costumes: Jess Goldstein
Original music: Mike Yionoulis
.Vineyard Theater, 108 E. 15th St. (353-3874)
2/08/98-3/15; opens 2/22.
Reviewed 2/23/98 by Elyse Sommer

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