Romance Novels for Dummies, by Boo Killebrew. Directed by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Mary Wiseman and Emily Lyons; photo: Daniel Rader
"It's deceptively successful."
Mary Wiseman and Ashley Austin Morris; photo: Daniel Rader
When life becomes too difficult in Mississippi Liz Eberwine, a recent widow, retreats to Brooklyn, NY where her older sister, Bernie Hollis, has already taken refuge in a world of books, drugs, alcohol and random men. Liz brings her six year old daughter Lily with her and the three live together in a discordantly brilliant world where no one seems to do much except for Lily who spends most of her time learning dirty words and phrases. Liz harbors a dream of writing romance novels, her favorite form of literature, and perhaps finding a new man. With her sister's able assistance she identifies three through an internet dating service. Life begins to look interesting again.
On the mainstage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival at Williams College, these three try to make life work again, but their methods are not well-matched in spite of their close history. Bernie has a near-legendary life of random men and the only one she has stuck with is a drag queen who occupies a lot of the stage time without actually making an appearance. Instead we find ourselves watching Liz interact with her offline, on-line beaus all played by Justin Long. The first two are deliciously creepy and the third one seems to be a winner, or almost a winner. Partly through her sister's coaching Liz is not the most honest person to meet this way and that ultimately takes an awful toll on what could be a brighter future.
This comedy has a lot of laughs and smattering of pathos and an emotional reckoning that is almost beautifully played. Almost, I say, because the heavy southern accents make it very hard to grasp the words the actresses are saying, particularly the young girl, Emily Lyons, playing the child. (It has been a season filled with southern accents and drink clouding speech starting with the Berkshire Theatre Group's "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof" and culminating, I hope, in this play.)
Long manages to create three very different men in a very short space of time. Happily only one of them lasts long enough to become interesting. This is Myron, a jazz trumpeter who, falling out of a disastrous relationship, finds himself drawn to Liz, or at least to the version of Liz that she presents to him. Long's youthful, slender appearance makes him an interesting choice for a man our heroine could be drawn to; he is clearly a polar opposite to her dead husband. He talks too much to be seductive and yet he almost manages to carry things to the next level before Liz freaks out. Watching Long play this scene on a Murphy Bed is definitely a moment of casual spying on our part for the gentle intimacy he provokes is nothing to be played out in public. He presents a picture of idealized male experience. His belief in everything she tells him is alarmingly sweet and the actor carries it off truthfully, playing honestly those moments that any idiot would stand apart from with evident suspicion. It is a difficult role and Justin Long carries it off so very well.
Ashley Austin Morris as Liz's older, boozing, drug-taking, late great hippy of the present, is remarkable to watch and hear. She carries off without subtlety all of the Bernie's qualities, good and bad. She plays the frankly written scenes with ease and brings exuberant life to the play. In fact, until the final several scenes she plays the only character who seems to be actually living in this play about the aftermath of youthful death.
Liz's in-laws, her dead husband's parents, show up unexpectedly near the end of the one-act 90 minute play and they bring an invigorating energy to the show. Andrew Weems plays Bobby Eberwine and Connie Ray plays his wife, Cecelia. Their entrance is a definite alien invasion into this murky planet the sisters occupy in Brooklyn. They arrive, as in-laws always seem to do in these plays, at just the wrong moment and stay through worse. It is their insistence about Liz's future that turns this hard to hear comedy into a difficult to understand near-tragedy. Weems is a charmer who can turn the most innoccuous line into a gem of high comedy. Ray knows how to play the controlling force in her family without making it objectionable, although she does leave us the questionable aspect to ponder. The two make a perfectly matched pair, a believable family unit.
Mary Wiseman andJustin Long; photo: Daniel Rader
Connie Ray and Emily Long; photo: T. Charles Erickson
The child is the only non-professional in the company and she does remarkably well; but if only we could have understood her when she spoke. It would have been a much finer performance. Mary Wiseman brings many strengths and a beautiful way of structuring a complex sentence to her performance as Liz. She has a knack for taking the moment and waiting until it is right to speak again as she lets her story unfold. Reciting the rules for writing romance novels throughout the play, using those rules as guideposts for dealing with real situations and people, Wiseman allows her character to fall into the fallacy of self-educating oneself. She makes Liz appealing and sympathetic enough to get our heart-rates up toward the end of the play. It is an almost perfect performance of a difficulty, slightly under-written role whose final choices are difficult to understand. I doubt anyone could have gotten us closer.
Moritz Von Stuelpnagel has directed the show with flair and a southern comfort zone flowing around the wide open room in which the play is set. Considering the fact that this is a world premiere, it is impossible to know how much work has gone on between him and the author Boo Killebrew in developing the people in the play, the situations in the play and the ending. Were I told that a new version was going to be performed somewhere I would be tempted to follow its progress, but that has not been whispered as yet.
Technically the show is lovely to look at with both fine and silly costumes designed by Tilly Grimes. Tim Mackabee's set(s) work very well and are both alarmingly out of proportion to a Brooklyn reality and yet still appropriately theatrical for Brooklyn. Justin Townsend's lighting is just fine for this comedy, although perhaps a bit too colorful at times. Palmer Hefferen's original music is fascinating and his sound design is too loud. Dialect coach Deborah Hecht should be tried for treason to the theater, provoking too accurate a set of accents increasing our auditory difficulty with the actors speaking the speech.
I think this is a fascinating new piece of theater and one I hope can be salvaged from a mixed-blessing experience in Williamstown. I like the play. I like most of the actors. I like the production as presented but without hearing every word I am conflicted about the value of this first production. C'mon folks of the theater: playwrights write words to be heard and not implied or hoped for as the show progresses. Tennessee Williams would tell you the same thing, I am sure and after this play I hope that Boo Killebrew will take up the cudgel for clarity.
Romance Novels for Dummies plays at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA through July 31. To purchase tickets or get information contact the Williamstown Theatre Festival box office at 413-597-3400 or go on line at wtfestival.org.