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A CurtainUp Review
Music From a Sparkling Planet

by David Lohrey

Music From a Sparkling Planet
J. Smith-Cameron and M. Gaston (Photo: Joan Marcus)
The Drama Dept., also known as Douglas Carter Beane & Co., has made its reputation on sparkling comedies produced with flair. Their shows have been perceived as a kind of 1990s antidote to 1980s cynicism. The theatre community welcomed The Drama Dept. into its collective arms following triumphs such as Beane's delightful As Bees in Honey Drown and the lively revival of June Moon. Beane's new play Music From a Sparkling Planet fits into the Drama Dept.'s presumed mission to provide audiences with light diversions with polish and gusto, but in its effort to embrace nostalgia as more than a comic retreat, this play may leave one feeling more pushed than elevated.

In the first act, we are introduced to three men whose sense of loss and abandonment makes them indistinguishable from their dramatic contemporaries. Miller (T. Scott Cunningham), Hoagie (Ross Gibby), and Wags (Josh Hamilton) are thirty-something moderns in search of meaning and hope, sad because they remember innocence but can't find it. When they discover their mutual admiration and love for a one-time local TV hostess, Tamara Tomorrow (J. Smith-Cameron), whose introductions to afternoon children's fare included hopeful messages about life in the future, they make it their mission to find her. A series of scenes take us back to Tamara in TV land and allow us to be seduced by Tamara's beguiling charm. Beane's best writing is to be found in Tamara's improvised predictions of a better tomorrow, which have the effect of the Siren's call on all who listen. Most touching and persuasive is the relationship between Tamara and Andy (Michael Gaston), the TV producer who discovers, loves, and loses her. This tender, unresolved affair between Tamara and Andy provides just the right note of reality in a story otherwise cut off from what makes characters live and breathe. The three men and their quest never connect in the way Tamara and her producer do, this partially due to the poignant ungainliness of Michael Gaston's fine performance. Through him we understand what it is to make do, to live without, to yearn in silence.

J. Smith-Cameron brings her own charms to a role suited to her unique skill at playing ordinary women who possess extraordinary powers. Something about the way she holds her body makes her seem more at home in kitchens and at playgrounds than at cocktail parties and office suites. She could be your mom, or sis, or first love, and this gives her a magical air. She's the classic unglamorous glamour-girl, like Judy Holliday or Shirley MacLaine. Even though the playwright fails to make his three suitors equally interesting, we have no trouble understanding why they have fallen for Ms Smith-Cameron's mystically compassionate Tamara Tomorrow.

Mark Brokaw directs with confidence, although the first act seemed slow. Perhaps, too, it is time to do away with two chairs and a steering wheel as the obligatory scene-mover. It worked brilliantly in Driving Miss Daisy, and was necessary to the success of How I Learned to Drive, but as employed here and in recent works by Richard Greenberg and David Lindsay-Abaire, it is beginning to seem old-hat.

It is in the second act that Beane's play finally takes flight. Beane gives the actors and the director more to work with. One could even go so far as to say that it is only here that the engines get started, for it is in Allen Moyer's marvelously evocative road-side motel that past finally meets present, dreams meet reality, and the story begins. When Miller, Hoagie, and Wags step through that motel door and into Tamara's today, the essential sadness of their quest is revealed. Nostalgia gives way to hope, though, as the "boys" persuade Tamara to revive her career. At one critical moment, tempers flair as Tamara defends the producers who exploited her and explains how trust paved her way to fame. Here the cynical youth get a lesson from the past on why this world is becoming less and less inhabitable. It is an electrifying exchange.

Beane's Music From a Sparkling Planet ends much too soon. Somehow we know that Tamara has a lot more to teach, but when she is taken away, the play stops. No one else has much to say, no one else can hold the stage.

As Bees in Honey Drown
June Moon (second review)
How I Learned to Drive

Music From a Sparkling Planet
by Douglas Carter Beane
Directed by Mark Brokaw
with T. Scott Cunningham, Ross Gibby, Josh Hamilton and J. Smith-Cameron
Set Design: Allen Moyer
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Costume Design: Michael Krass
Sound Design: Janet Kalas
Original Music: Lewis Flinn
Running Time: 2 hours including one intermission
A production of the Drama Dept. Drama Dept. website: Greenwich House Theatre, 27 Barrow Street (just east of 7th Av. S.)
Telephone (212) 633-9108
Opening July 19, 2001, closing August 12, 2001
Wed - Sat @8, Sat @3, Sun @2 and 7; $35
Reviewed by David Lohrey based on 7/14/01 performance

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