Knickerbocker by Jonathan Marc Sherman. Directed by Nicholas Martin.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"A good kind of scary."
What is a man to do? What is a man of forty to do? That is the problem confronting Jerry when he and his wife finish their second sonogram and discover that their first-born will be a boy. "I’m not ready," he tells his wife over dinner in their favorite booth in their favorite New York City restaurant. Pauline is encouraging. She wants him to know that she thinks he is ready. He’s not certain.
Nine scenes later, still investigating the repercussions of impregnating the woman he loves and has married, he leaves the booth in order to escort this mother-to-be to the hospital for the birth of their son. In between, during the 90 minute excursion across his own uncharted waters, Jerry learns the awful truth about fatherhood: you are never ready. Amusement at his own situation has turned to dread. Dread to despair and despair to hope. Jerry has no more self-confidence in this process to come, fatherhood, parenthood, than he had at the beginning, but he knows that this is the only reasonable way to take on this responsibility.
The Williamstown Theatre Festival is giving audiences this gift from playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman this summer. Through Jerry’s journey, a round-trip to nowhere, we can experience the universal fears and loves, and hopes, and unspoken angers, and fears again as the tiny thing takes on its own reality, assisted by the constant fatherly voice emerging from Jerry and the man’s personal strengths. Artistic Director Nicholas Martin has taken on this problem play and helped it to soar to unexpected heights as actor Reg Rogers pursues the goals for Jerry.
Rogers is a handsome man whose face and hair will seem familiar. He has a flair for exaggerating a gesture and then bringing it back home again having made a valid point that never seemed valid before. There is, in his off-hand performance style, a humanity that pokes out of any holes that might surface in the script, blocking the leak and forming a bond that keeps the audience as alive and aware as the cast is in their characters. Although a real play with characters interacting, the evening at the Nikos theater feels almost like a long, long monologue. Normally, I really don’t like monologue shows and this one actually isn’t one, it just feels like it somehow. Probably because Jerry never leaves the stage, never leaves his place at the Knickerbocker, never leaves himself for very long.
Rogers works beautifully, and without affectation or influence, with every other member of the company. His wife Pauline, played by Susan Pourfar, has three major scenes along with him at the Knickerbocker. Pourfar's pregnant wife grows steadily in self-confidence as the play takes its time leaps forward. Her physical changes help to keep in perspective the narrative conscientiousness of the play. Pourfar is delightful and pleasant and encouraging in this role and it is her downplayed performance that keeps a few of the other scenes from seeming unreal, or imaginary.
His former mistress, Tara, is played to a seductive "t" by Annie Parisse. As they reminisce and question their past relationship, judging each other by their current ongoing relationships with Pauline, Parisse works her way through a steady stream of attitudes including flirtation, verbal sexual by-play and honest friendship. She handles each one of these, and the sharp changes between them, with honesty.
Two men share time with Jerry at the restaurant, Chester - played by Peter Dinklage, and Melvin played by Brooks Ashmanskas. Dinklage is ruthless in his characterization of a man almost too desperate to have Jerry admit that he is his best friend. Relentlessly pursuing this relationship, Chester over asserts his position. Dinklage is so good in this role that he is almost a bit scary to watch and listen to. His "scary," however, leaves Jerry more confident in his own choices and more sure of his belief that though not ready for fatherhood, he might be in the right place and the right time. On the other hand Melvin is a sharer. Every experience he has had he will share.
Ashmanskas plays this sort of character well, as he proved last season at this theater as George in "She Loves Me." This time around, however, he has to protect that self-confidence with a different set of manners. Melvin’s actual relationship with Jerry seemed clear to me at the outset of his scene, but I lost the focus somehow and came away wondering how they knew each other. The two men could be brothers, but when I lost the thread, I lost it permanently and came away unclear on this point.
Jerry’s father Raymond is played with absolute correctness by Bob Dishy. He is funny, touching and a bit frightening as well, as he and his son discuss Jerry’s mother, Jerry’s birth and his childhood. Dishy occasionally reacts to a question or a thought with an almost non-sequitur that catches us unawares. The rapidity with which he recovers his position in this relationship is quirky and just right.
Rightor Doyle has a small moment as the waiter.
It is the set designed by Alexander Dodge that makes this play work so very well. A semi-circle of overstuffed leather surrounding a single pedestal half-round table that contains the characters as they talk and talk and talk is the playing area for almost every scene. It sounds stagnant, but director Martin moves his characters constantly within this space and like Alfred Hitchcock in "Lifeboat" keeps our attention trained on the relationships without tricks or optical illusions. We are his camera and he easily points us in whatever direction he wishes us to view from at any given moment.
The design team includes Gabriel Berry whose costumes are right for the characters and Philip Rosenberg whose lighting is fine.
This is an intriguing play that sets us up for the oddness of its situation from the first instant when Jerry produces the wrong sonogram and the discussion of baby names becomes a contest between Tobias and Tobias. Along the way - in a monologue - we learn about a man whose peculiar history, being struck by lightning seven times, affects the way our protagonist lives his life. While the parallels aren’t immediately evident the follow-up thought process, post-show, begins to show an astute observer/listener just what the playwright had in mind.
Just as in childbirth there is an "ah-hah!" moment in the epiphany of the hesitant father.
Reg Rogers as Jerry; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Rogers with Peter Dinklage as Chester; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Rogers with Susan Pourfar as Pauline; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Knickerbocker plays at the Nikos Stage of the Williamstown Theatre Festival through July 19. Located at the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA, information and tickets can be obtained through the box office at 413-597-3400 or on line at www.wtfestival.org.