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A CurtainUp Review


At its comedic best Skyscraper gently satirizes the less enlightened city planners' tendency to tear down edifices of historic and artistic significance, the need of some to save history's landmarks or at least documenting them, and the reasons why those who were there often can't or won't remember. Thrown in for good measure are a few thrusts at the sexual adventurer who's lost sight of the body within the casing (in this case a provocatively attractive raincoat).

The play has too many serious undertones to quite fit its advance billing as a romantic comedy. A more accurate description would be serio-comedy with a generous dash of reality-based fantasy -- the reality being the link to the father of modernism in architecture, Louis Henry Sullivan (1856-1924) whose design of the Chicago Stock Exchange building probably is the model of playwright David Auburn's fictional skyscraper. Louis also happens to be the name (and with good reason) of Auburn's s most interesting, fully developed and endearing character, a one hundred and ten year old man named Louis who, according to another character, "should have died of natural causes in the sixties."

Louis is portrayed with a delicate and delicious mix of humor and poignancy by John Wylie. From his first appearance to his final pose at the roof edge of the modern totem that unifies the play's action, Wylie commands the stage. Space prevents my citing more than a few examples from his uniformly bravura performance. His re-telling of the episode when a plane crashed into the Empire State building with himself as the "villain" is certainly a comedic highlight. A touching illustration of his quicksilver shifts from hilarious to heartbreaking is a scene in which he confronts Jessica (Nina Landey), the young urban archeologist with this declaration: "I don't want to dredge up anything for you--a stranger--everyone I know is dead and everything is falling apart."

Marianne Hagan is lovely and persuasive as Vivian the young woman whose attempted suicide spins the play's dramatic wheels. Jeffrey Donovan as Raymond the head of the company assigned to demolish the skyscraper and Andrew Sgroi as Joseph his inept brother are apt opposites. (Watch for the neat little character touch when the pragmatic Raymond tosses out his Chinese take-out food carton but save the bag it came in). Two other closely linked opposites are Nina Landey as Jessica a young woman who broke her arm while trying to save some of the skyscraper's past and Jenna Stern as the nymphomania lawyer handling her suit against Raymond's demolition company. Sturdy as the ensemble is, however, I'm reminded of Sir Alec Guiness' comment in his diary-memoir, My Name Escapes Me -- ( See Our Review) -- about the connection between different generations: " It seems an impertinence, when pushing eighty-two to deliberately associate with people a lot younger than oneself, feeling that possibly one might interest or entertain. Of course it isn't quite that: secretly one hopes and longs to draw on the vitality and brightness of the young, and above all, to be able to join in their laughter."

Mr. Wylie who is neither a hundred and ten or even eighty-two, (though we hope he remains in the theater until he's at least an octogenarian), oozes enough vitality to imbue his young colleagues with the brightness of his own spirit.

Skyscraper is smartly directed and nimbly paced by Michael Rego who's also one of the newly formed Arcara Group's producers. Its structure resembles a fugue in classical music. To begin there's a scene full of smoke and thunder and rain to introduce us to the six players' personas. Subsequent scenes bring the players back in pairs and as a group to expound on the play's serious themes. While there is plenty of laughter in and around this building, it is never without its concomitant moments of wistfulness.

Abetted by Michael Fagin's versatile set design and Johnna Doty's snappy music, Skylight is sufficiently entertaining to maintain Greenwich House's reputation as a physically modest venue where you go expecting to see something new and fresh. With only two of the six characters--Wylie's Louis and and Marianne Hagan's Vivian--laying full claim to our sympathies and Skyscraper wobbling a bit under too many themes it may not have quite the bounce to hit theatrical pay dirt like its two recent predecessors -- Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde written and directed by Moisés S. Kaufman (Our Review)--and the hip youg Drama Dept's smash hit As Bees In Honey Drown (Our Review). At minimum. it deserves the chance to prove itself at least a few weeks longer than its current too briefly scheduled run.

By David Auburn
Directed by Michael Rego
Starring John Wylie and with Marianne Hagan, Jeffrey Donovan, Nina Landey, Andrew Sgroi and Jenna Stern
. Greenwich House, 27 Barrow (279-4200)
9/20/97-10/05/97 (opening 9/28)
Extended to 10/26 Reviewed 9/29/97--Elyse Sommer

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