Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Review of Arden Theater's "Dex and Julie" published at News of Delaware County

Any new play represents a huge investment for a theater company. But during Philadelphia’s inaugural New Play Festival, it’s no surprise that the Arden Theater, one of the city’s premier companies, would stage an entry. And in Bruce Graham’s latest, “Dex and Julie Sittin in a Tree,” the Arden spared no expense, replicating the interior of a stylish lodge, hiring two of Philly’s finest actors, and drawing director James Christy out of retirement.

The only surprise is how much this new play disappoints.

In Graham’s play, Michael Dexter returns to his alma mater, nominated by professor Julie Chernitsky for their “distinguished alumni award.” Twenty-five years earlier both attended the same school, where they briefly dated. However, he does not suspect that she’s using the award as a pretense for recrimination, revelation, and revenge.

In spite of the possibilities, not much is said, nothing resolved, and very little happens. Ultimately, this occurs because Graham’s play is shot through with clichés, which fail to create any real tension or drama.

The bulk of these clichés inhabit the characters themselves. Dex is an emotionally unavailable, uber-pragmatist who donates to both parties, and is now a twice-divorced lawyer outranking Al Sharpton on “New York’s most hated list.” Couple him with Julie, a virgin and practicing Catholic when she met Dex, who has pined her whole life over their failed relationship, later becoming a professor of obscure romantic poets. Moreover, there’s the Act I cliffhanger (that everyone saw coming) of a possible parentage, leading to Dex longing for redemption and meaning in an after-the-fact fatherhood.

And none of it works either. The play spends the first third of this ninety-minute piece in character exposition, to have neither lead commit to their roles (granted, I know it’s a mask, but it’s an unconvincing mask nonetheless). And neither looks the part, especially Lumia, whose physique alone betrays the malady-ridden late forty-something the part suggests.

And both have done much better work elsewhere—especially Lumia, because while Childs deftly handles the humor in her part, he’s never once pathetic enough as the aging, regret-filled man who doesn’t know how to make restitution for the mistakes of his youth. (And the play does little to help them, with one of the chief moments of tension coming in a fight over a grilled-cheese sandwich.)

Only the humor is well executed. Childs rummages Lumia’s carry-on and exclaims, “you’re like a fucking Rite-Aid.” Later, teasing him about still liking Billy Joel, he does concede, “I saw him on tour with Elton last year. I felt like I was at a sumo match.”

Beyond the humor, the play holds interest only to see if it finally goes anywhere. Doomed by one last cliché, the play ends on Lumia pleading, “Can we just pretend,” to Childs solemnly intoning, “that was so long ago.” Really? You mean we can’t go back, and to do so would be the falsest form of pretending? Considering all the possibilities involved in a “homecoming” theme (think Grosse Point Blank), why pick the most clichéd of the lot?

But maybe that’s Graham’s entire purpose: to make some meta-ironical point about plays that long for the past—that they must be clichéd because they deal with such a stock human experience. In that case, he should’ve just written an essay, and not wasted so much of the Arden’s money on a new play.

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