Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Review of "A Few Small Repairs" at Painted Bird Project; published in the Philadelphia Theater Review

Painted Bird Project’s production of “A Few Small Repairs” opens upon Dick Durrossette’s cramped but potent example of decay. On one of two unkempt and stained mattresses lies a ghastly looking Hazel Bowers (Big Alice). An ancient record player sits atop a small refrigerator containing brandy and ice cream; wallpaper peels away from its moorings, and light streams through holes in the ceiling and a ruined foreground wall. When Big Alice remarks on her lack of choice in ice cream for dinner, “the conditions I am forced to live in!” she underscores the persisting delusions of a life decayed by time and neglect.

If she had paid attention to the deficiencies in David Robson’s script, she would have realized that much greater problems needed solving first.

Robson’s play is a fictionalized reimagining of the lives of Big and Little Edith Bouvier Beale. Kin of Jackie Onassis, they lived in a run down manor in the Hamptons for twenty years before facing eviction over health concerns, captured in the 1975 film Grey Gardens.

But while Grey Gardens was a documentary, Robson’s play wants to keep the naturalistic approach while also injecting elements of many different and disjointed stories (there’s no real plot).

The play begins with the strained relationship between Big and Little Alice (Sonja Robson); the latter keeping both herself and her mother in a state of codependence (a burden that she then despairs over later), by hiding their pending eviction. A handyman (Foster Cronin) comes to fix one of the code violations, and though extremely younger than Little Alice, engages her romantically. Unknown to the audience, this plot-let is all part of the political machinations (ended quickly in Act Two) of an over-ambitious petty official (Gene D’Alessandro) and the surprisingly philosophical police officer (Jerry Puma). Later, the son (Len Webb) of the former gardener interjects racial tension (for laughs no less) into the play in order to motivate the remorse of the handyman (who we’ve never been given reason to care about). The entire play then resolves itself in an impromptu birthday party (that even the official partially attends!) for Big Alice, that slowly devolves into a memory play where she relates the story of fellating a teenager (when she was 44) at Little Alice’s 18th birthday party, where the young man later drowns in their pool. This may or may not be part of a murder mystery (think Chappaquiddick) that leads to Big Alice’s divorce, and serves as the starting point of the long road that leads them all to the opening of this play.

The play attempts all of this but does none successfully. Moreover, not a single character is even remotely engaging. Bowers handles her role expertly, though wasting her skills an on incoherently drawn character that starts helpless, becomes dreamily delusional in remembrance, and then finishes suddenly sane and competent in the play’s final scene. This turnaround (over the return of the “Jackie Kennedy” character) is too unbelievable; moreover, it’s too much a transformation to not cast disbelief on all her earlier behavior.

Sonja Robson on the other hand, gives an excruciatingly captivating portrayal of a hyperactive neurotic—an eighteen year old paralyzed (perhaps, it’s not clear) by a night of trauma long ago. The rest of the cast fills out their roles perfunctorily, save Cronin, who tries diligently to generate both sympathy and intrigue, failing only because the play itself fails him.

At the play’s end, Big Alice remarks, “there’s just no telling where the road of life will take you,” an apparent attempt to tie things up thematically. All I heard was the question that Robson should have asked himself before he began writing this play.

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