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'Abingdon Square' has dreamlike structure

January 16, 2004|Rob Kendt;Philip Brandes;F. Kathleen Foley

On the surface, "Abingdon Square" looks a lot like Edith Wharton territory: An orphaned teen girl in pre-WWII New York City marries a well-heeled man twice her age who provides for all her needs except the sexual and emotional ones. But while she may have recognized the milieu, the acerbic Wharton wouldn't likely have appreciated the moral and dramaturgic contortions of Maria Irene Fornes' weirdly formal, meditative 1987 play, now in a stellar if staid L.A. premiere under director Martha Demson.

Fornes' economical text, which is rife with short scenes between blackouts, has her characters postulate directly what's on their minds -- indeed, many scenes are effectively monologues -- but her storytelling structure is less straightforward, even dreamlike.

We don't, for instance, find out much about the tender courtship of Juster (hollow-eyed, affecting Weston Blakesley) and Marion (pointedly blank Heather Fox) until late in the second act, well after the May-December romance has gone south. And Fornes doesn't exactly spell out how Marion's self-described "drowning in vagueness," which has her sublimating her ill-defined longings by ecstatically declaiming Dante in her underwear, leads to her subsequent extreme measures, including an infidelity or two.

This teasing indirection is no doubt preferable to a more ham-fisted approach, particularly since Fornes still manages a bracingly dramatic climax between Juster, Marion and Juster's sweet-natured son, Michael (a convincing James Brandon), as well as a surprising, Pieta-like denouement. On the other hand, the play's narrative and logical switchbacks are often more baffling than evocative.

Demson's direction is appropriately calm and circumspect, and she creates some marvelously ambiguous, haunting stage pictures with Maureen Weiss and Josh Worth's set and Dan Reed's lights. Indeed, if "Abingdon Square" feels like something more than the sum of parts that don't quite add up, it's largely to the credit of Demson and her committed cast, particularly Fox and Blakesley, whose striking mismatch proves to be as strangely moving as it is disorienting.

-- Rob Kendt

"Abingdon Square," Open Fist Theatre Company, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Feb. 14. $18. (323) 882-6912. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

*

'Grace & Glorie' offers life lessons

"Why couldn't you let me die in my ignorance?" wails a dirt-poor, cancer-ridden mountain woman at the realization that her narrow, inflexible beliefs might have needlessly enslaved her to a life of hardship and sacrifice.

Riveting moments of self-awareness like this yank Tom Ziegler's "Grace & Glorie" out of the more familiar and predictable elements in a story of precarious friendship between two women from very different backgrounds who teach one another valuable life lessons. After an off-Broadway run, Ziegler's play was filmed in 1998 with Diane Lane and Gena Rowlands. While Judy Welden's staging for NoHo's Eclectic Company Theatre doesn't sport that kind of pedigree, the revival finds its way -- after a shaky start -- to some genuinely moving performances.

At heart the play is a variation on the "country mouse versus city mouse" motif (with terminal illness thrown in to raise the dramatic stakes).

Elderly but still-feisty Grace (Nan Tepper), who's spent her entire life within 50 miles of her remote farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, squares off against the well-intentioned but naive overtures from volunteer hospice worker Gloria (D.J. Harner), a transplanted New Yorker bent on redeeming a past mistake.

All the expected conflicts surface (youth versus maturity, education versus horse sense, sophistication versus simple living) -- sometimes more times than really necessary. Some faltering delivery, particularly in the initial scenes, calls out for more performance polishing.

Production values are definitely from the Blue Ridge side of the budget spectrum, and occasionally distracting, as in the problematic sound montages and easily fixable prop lapses (lose the white eggs, please!)

But where the show takes flight is in the surprisingly touching exchanges where these two opposites discover the terrors -- and dreams -- they have in common. By the end, both actors have impressively shaped formula into unique, flesh-and-blood characters with whom time is well spent.

-- Philip Brandes

"Grace & Glorie," Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m., through Feb. 1; returns Sundays, Feb. 15 and 22 at 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Feb. 22. $15. (818) 508-3003. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

*

Troupe shines as Gogol's 'Madman'

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