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A CurtainUp Review
About Alice

I wrote this for Alice. Actually, I wrote everything for Alice. — Calvin Trillin
about Alice
Jeffrey Beane and Carrie Paff (Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein)
What starts out as tragedy turns miraculously into a valentine in Calvin Trillin's About Alice, now playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. This bio-drama, presented by Theatre for a New Audience, and directed by Leonard Foglia, is a New York love story that will touch your heart and perhaps make you cry.

Inspired by his 2007 memoir of the same name, this play is about his wife Alice, a non-smoker who was diagnosed with lung cancer at age 38 and died 25 years later from complications from her radiation treatment. This stage adaptation hews close to his memoir, only Alice is no longer just a subject.

Making her a character in the play It proves to be a wise choice for two reasons. First, Trillin is able to tap into one of the virtues of theater, which is not to "tell" but "show" a character in the flesh. Secondly, he hopes to expand upon—or correct—what he had written about Alice in his lighter books like A Family Man and Alice, Let's Eatin which he depicted her as a "sort of admirable sitcom-ish character" and the "voice of reason" in the family. In his play, however, he attempts to portray the real Alice.

When the lights go up, Calvin (Jeffrey Bean) strides onto the stage and introduces himself as a writer whose former brushes with the stage consisted of "one-ham shows" (a term coined by his daughters Abigail and Sarah). His voice grows a shade darker as he describes the nature of the play about to unfold. As he simply puts it: "Tonight there won't be a variety of subjects. Tonight is about Alice."

As the shadows shrouding the stage lift, we see Alice enter, though Calvin can't. From his facial expression, it seems as if he hears her in his mind. But through the magic of theater, Calvin will in a moment join Alice, and re-enact some of their most treasured moments together.

Much of this two-hander spins around Calvin and Alice's relationship, from their first rendezvous at a party in 1963 to their final sad goodbye in a hospital's heart-transplant room in 2001. Obviously, this doesn't quite fit into the happily-ever-after category. Yet it was a partnership that elicited the admiration of all who knew the couple.

Like all married couples, Calvin and Alice experienced friction. One of their less-than-golden conjugal moments sees them time-travel back to 1975. Calvin is on a business trip in New Orleans and calls Alice before enjoying a meal at Chez Helene's (a famous soul-food restaurant) Instead of telling him to enjoy it, Alice mentions that she just finished having a phone conversation with his doctor about his last checkup report indicating that he was overweight. No, I won't be a spoiler here. But Calvin did let Alice subtly know that she was guilty of long-distance appetite impairment.

Back in the present he tells us that someone once compared him and Alice to the American comedy duo Burns and Allen. That has Alice chiming in with "Except she's George and he's Gracie."

With the boundaries of time and space intentionally blurred and decades are leaped through in a nanosecond, alic and Calvin will repeatedly and surreally eavesdrop on each other's monologues and will interject comments at will. It can be a little disorienting at times to keep up with the free-wheeling repartee. However, while Trillin is more a journalist than a playwright, his wry humor and instinctive comic timing keep things on track.

Calvin's anguish at watching his vibrant wife lose her health is convincingly portrayed by Jeffrey Bean. His Calvin isn't able to keep his beloved wife from dying but he clearly tastes the salt of her tears from the moment of her diagnosis to her last earthly breath.

. Alice's journey into the "Land of the Sick People" is conveyed in the sensitive outlines of Carrie Paff's performance. She and Bean have the good stage chemistry that is essential to make this page to stage effort work.

Alice's monologues are culled from actual words from her published articles, notably "Of Dragons and Garden Peas" in The New England Journal of Medicine and "Betting Your Life" in The New Yorker (the latter appeared in the magazine just eight months before her death). Leonard Foglia, having directed Anna Deavere Smith's Notes from the Field that incorporated the words of real people into the script, is thus the ideal director for About Alice

No complaints with the creative team. Riccardo Hernandez's minimalist set, abetted by Russell H. Champa's clean lighting, allows the actors the space to deliver their monologues and then segue smoothly into their various scenes. David C. Woolard's chic clothing for Alice and more understated outfits for Calvin are just right. And Elaine J. McCarthy's ever-changing projection design adds ambience to the proceedings.

Maybe the only fitting way to sum up the production is to say it achieves its aspirations to bring Alice dramatically alive in the here and now. Yes, it has a tragic ending with Alice's death. But wasn't it Alfred Lord Tennyson who wrote: 'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

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Directed by Leonard Foglia
Cast: Jeffrey Bean (Calvin Trillin), Carrie Paff (Alice Trillin).
Sets: Riccardo Hernandez
Costumes: David C. Woolard
Lighting: Russell H. Champa
Sound: Josh Schmidt
Projection Design: Elaine J. McCarthy
Wigs: Tom Watson
Stage Manager: Alexandra Hall
Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn (Fort Greene neighborhood) 866-811-4111 or online at
From 1/08/19; opening 1/20/19; closing 2/03/19.
Tuesday through Sunday @ 7:30pm; Saturday and Sunday matinees @ 2pm.
Running time: 75 minutes without intermission
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 1/17/19

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