Caroline in Jersey by Melinda Lopez. Directed by Amanda Charlton.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Even the dead are critical!"
Lea Thompson is Caroline. Again -- remember her four year stint on television as Caroline in the City. This Caroline is different, though. This one has moved out of the city for reasons too numerous to count, but hereís three of them: need for change; need for revival of spirit; need to escape the ugliness her husbandís affair is causing her. Using a ten year old ad, she finds an apartment in a private house and moves in. Her best friend, David, is gay and the composer/lyricist/bookwriter of a new musical entitled Petz in which Caroline is to appear. Matt McGrath plays David. There is a batty old landlady played by Brenda Wehle and a ghost named Will assayed by Will LeBow. Everyoneís at home in New Jersey.
This tragic comedy has stories to tell about perception. How each character perceives and understands his or her own story as well as the stories of the others is what this play is all about. The third "world premiere" at the Nikos Theatre at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, this play is, perhaps, the most engaging of the three. There is something dark, mysterious and forbidden about this play. There is also something silly and frivolous here as well.
In "Petz" for example, Caroline plays the Russian dog who died inside Sputnik Two. Her performance in this role takes up a lot of dialogue actually. Similarly there is the allusion to her refrigerator as the gateway to the afterlife, a conceit borrowed directly from "Ghostbusters." Finally there is the piano in the apartment and its music, mostly engendered by Will the Ghost. These three concepts, themes, pervade the play.
What involves the inner darkness of the soul is Carolineís separation anxiety from the husband who cheated and basically threw her out while continuing to direct her in "Petz." This drives her to drink and worse. There is the hidden secret of the deaths of the former occupants of the place, the landlady Mimiís parents.
There are answers available by the end of the play to many of these odd things, and I donít want to get there before you do. That wouldnít be fair to the fine work being done by the actors in this show.
Will LeBow is the shining star with the comedy timing. He spouts quotes from Arthur Millerís "Death of a Salesman" while playing old favorites on the upright piano and arguing with Caroline, who can see him - ghost that he is - even when she canít see herself. LeBow is brilliant in the role and thatís not just the inside light in the refrigerator Iím talking about. He seems to have captured the essence of the man Will once was perfectly. His conversations with Caroline are delicious snappy bits. He is the man that Will had been and he works that to a tee. I heard someone at intermission call him a "blithe" spirit and as I understand that word to mean lacking in due concern I would concede that this is the spirit LeBow plays in Act One. All that changes in the script and in the tenor of his playing in Act Two. LeBow has the self-confidence to play Will in all his aspects. He does it well.
Lea Thompson is a whimsical and charming and overly nervous Caroline. She makes her character into a woman on the verge almost from the beginning. In doing so she hasnít got very far to go in the later transitions, but there is a consistency about her playing that makes this choice a very good one. Her Caroline has a center and it is a decaying core. Over the course of the two hour play we watch the rot grow inside her and can only envision one ending. Thompson blends bathos and pathos remarkably well here. And her singing is just a pleasure and a surprise.
Matt McGrath is just fine in his role, the gay best friend. He actually seems much younger than his role would claim to be, a forty-something up-and-coming theatrical. That youthfulness is part of his charm and he manages to use this to good effect in this role. David, the character, profits a good deal from the sweetness of McGrathís performance choices.
Oddly enough the story shifts late in the piece to focus on Mimi, the landlady, and as played by the superb Brenda Wehle it does so rightly. She is the one lost in New Jersey, lost in this old house, lost in the midst of the bustle of the world around her. Wehle is terrific complaining and crabbing about Caroline. She is even better when she learns to appreciate her tenantís charms and talents. When those two prime characteristic of Mimi converge and Will enters her life, she becomes a miraculous confessor and the story turns to her life and her needs and her losses. Wehle does more than her fair share in creating this smooth transition. She holds center stage, Carolineís preferred position, with ease and correctness. If there were no other good performances here, hers would still make this a worthwhile effort. As it stands she is among very good actors and she still holds her own, more than holds it, she creates her own.
On a perfectly dilapidated set, designed by Andrew Boyce with no little tongue in cheek (check out the peeling wallpaper) director Amanda Charlton has driven this four passenger vehicle straight down the Jersey Turnpike. She never moves to an exit; she never jumps the barrier or even shoves her vehicle into a passing lane. The director here has painted a single yellow line, for caution, right down the middle and she safely maintains speed and direction in her work.
Emily Rebholz has created and/or chosen the right clothes for these four characters. A special nod to her for Mimiís final dress. Absolutely wrong and perfectly right at the same, it is a marvel to watch the dark red-haired Wehle navigate a room wearing the gown. Jake DeGrootís lighting seemed to create problems for the technical crew, so it is hard to comment on it beyond saying that there was little daylight, if any, and the roomís odd glow at one point was hard to understand.
This is a new play with an uncertain future, but surely a future of some sort. The characters fascinate easily and there is a payoff for each of them. It is certainly a well constructed play and one I was glad to see. Knowing before you go that this Caroline is no other Caroline helps because the title and actress combination is a definite red herring here. Coming out knowing that this Caroline is the real Caroline is the reward.
Will LeBow; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Thompson, Brenda Wehle, Matt McGrath; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Lea Thompson; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Caroline in Jersey plays at the Nikos Theatre at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, located in the Ď62 Center for Theatre and Dance at 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA, through August 16. For schedules and tickets call the box office at 413-597-3400.