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Delving Into Differences in Belfast

Theater review: 'Remembrance,' a story of family conflict in Northern Ireland, starts in high gear but misses something on the way.


Real-life marrieds Leo Penn and Eileen Ryan look like they were meant for each other in their roles as Bert and Theresa--two sexagenarians in love--in Graham Reid's "Remembrance," at the Odyssey Theatre.

He's small and twinkly. She's slightly taller and inclined more toward worried frowns, which makes the smiles her suitor inspires all the more endearing. It's hard to fathom why anyone would oppose their match.

But then "Remembrance" is set in Belfast in the mid-'80s. Bert is Protestant and a former British soldier; Theresa is a Catholic. They've survived not only their spouses but also sons who were killed in "the troubles." In fact, the cemetery where they both buried fallen sons is where they met and where their romance began.

This could have started the play with an interesting twist on the standard Hollywood "meet cute" device--except that we don't see them meet. The romance is already in high gear as the play begins.

This takes some of the complexity out of the characterizations. There is no sense that these two were ever suspicious of each other, that they were afflicted by the same prejudices that exist in their surviving children. Their relationship hasn't much of an arc.

No, it turns out that the play isn't about them as much as it's about their relationship with their exasperating children.

Bert's surviving son (James Gandolfini) is a big lug--he hardly looks related to Penn's Bert. He's also a racist thug who has alienated his wife (Robin Lange) with his affairs and whose job as a policeman sounds like a cover for allowing him to beat up people. He talks of moving to South Africa, where he believes this task would be easier. Later we learn that he's convinced his father preferred his dead brother.

Theresa has two daughters. Deirdre (Melissa Fitzgerald) is a frustrated mother of three. Her husband is in prison for killing some Protestants. Joan (Laura Jean Salvato) is an ex-nurse who now devotes her life to cleaning the little house she shares with her mother. Later we learn that she feels some guilt in the death of her brother.

In other words, the kids are wrecks. The contrast between reasonable, affectionate parents and their bitter, bigoted children is so stark that it's almost as if Reid wrote the play as a manifesto in defense of the older generation.

The scenes in which the children cope with their parents' romance lead to sharp confrontations, but the set-up feels unbalanced. The resolution is oddly hazy, using a device that sacrifices credibility for wistfulness.

Veronica Brady's staging has a muffled quality. The younger actors often appear to hold back, not raising their voices as much as you might expect from such troubled and--in some cases--hotheaded characters. Accents vary. Penn and Ryan are better at projecting their characters to the back row of the small house.

The scene changes feel long, although Joseph Vitarelli's flavorful music, and a few bars of an original Sinead O'Connor recording, help pass the time. Roland Rosencranz's set is detailed and evocative.

Sean Penn, son of the play's stars, executive produced. Helicon Theatre Company produced.

* "Remembrance," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 2. $20. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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