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A CurtainUp DC Review
In the Absence of Spring

by Dolores Whiskeyman

On the fifth anniversary of an airplane crash, seven New Yorkers struggle to come to terms with the loss of their loved ones killed in the accident. 

Thus does In the Absence of Spring purport to examine the ways in which happenstance tragedy robs us of our faith in life itself. 

But if anyone is moved to tears by this production, it will be over the waste of two good hours that could have been spent somewhere else. In the Absence of Spring is a garbled mess, a meandering, unfocused parade of self-indulgence, cheap platitudes, and gratuitous sex. Characters trot across stage, spout philosophy instead of dramatic dialogue, lament their various losses and engage in noisy lovemaking. The most lecherous theatergoer will like this play: the rutting and grunting and nudity will at least keep you from falling asleep. Never mind that the on-stage sex is more distracting than illuminating; the author is obsessed. Consider: a key element in the story is his main character's rumination on the capacity of his wet dreams to predict disaster. This same character later confronts his lover with THE BIG QUESTION: "Would you swallow my cum?" 

This, I suppose, is the new measure of devotion in Manhattan. 

The biggest shock, however, is that the talent behind all this is Joe Calarco, whose Shakespeare's R&J, a critically acclaimed adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, ran for a year off-Broadway. As a director, Calarco has assembled a fine cast and a strong design team, but their combined talents cannot overcome the gross deficiencies of his text. 

The narrative, if you can call it that, follows the deteriorating relationship of a filmmaker, Christina (Vanessa Lock) and her lover, Larry (Michael Glenn), who is foolish enough to leave the only copy of her documentary -- which she has labored five years to produce -- in the back of a taxi. Larry is freaked out by coming across a carnivorous squirrel and finds some solace from a waitress, Georgia, (Susan Lynskey), whose mother is a bag lady (Susannah Berryman) who wanders New York babbling like a stewardess on crack. Okay, she lost it when her husband went down in flames on the airplane, and apparently she never got it back. 

Meanwhile, across town, Elaine (Minda Harden), a phone-sex operator with a heart of gold and a brain of sawdust, harangues her friend Jason (Erik Sorensen) about her plans to get out of town before the next disaster strikes. Jason then proceeds to pick up a waiter (Timothy Getman), have sex with him and then dump him. Except the waiter refuses to be dumped. 

Calarco attempts something artsy by staging the sex scene between Jason and the waiter on the same bed and at the same time that he has Christina and Larry in bed attempting to have sex, but failing. Maybe the fact that Larry just ruined his girlfriend's career has something to do with her disinterest, but instead, she is pre-occupied with the shape of her nose. Yes, the shape of her nose. 

Later, Elaine continues to see portents of doom and everyone ends up on stage mouthing long-winded monologues about their lost loved ones -- a staging that raises expectations of an act break, except the act goes on for another 15 minutes and concludes with an inexplicably comic bit in which Jason somehow concludes that he must "save" the bag lady. 

Act Two opens with some promise -- an affecting sequence with everyone at a bar -- not the same bar, although Calarco plays the same trick that he did with the bed in Act One. This time, though, the device works nicely. More importantly, the script settles in at this point, giving the characters an opportunity to work on each other -- the waiter to strive for closeness with his distant and rejecting lover, Georgia and Larry to find a point of connection, Elaine and Christina to realize they, too, have something in common. But the respite is short -- Calarco zips us back into a world of strange and unbelievable events, subjecting us to an utterly laughable subway disaster in which everyone screams for help -- and Elaine, discovering she is not alone in the rubble, implores Larry: "fuck me". 

Now I understand why, in some parts of Europe, outraged theatre patrons have rioted in the street. 

Let us say that things do not improve from there. Abruptly -- and for no reason that I can see -- everybody ends up in Ireland. Magically, the bag lady appears transformed as a mystic who spouts "wisdom" and "big ideas". Jason drops in to ruminate some more about his wet dream, then encounters the ghost of his dead lover who babbles at him about "getting on with life" and "learning to trust love". They kiss, all is well, the music swells -- and we get a few more incoherent speeches and then, mercifully, the damn thing is over. 

The fundamental problem here is that Calarco is so busy impressing his audience with THE MEANING OF IT ALL that he can't be bothered to structure a story in which we can figure out what is going on. 

If nothing else, In the Absence of Spring serves to explain why sometimes, playwrights shouldn't direct their own work. Had another director been brought in, perhaps he or she would have pulled Calarco aside and gently suggested that the thing was badly in need of surgery. Or maybe a mercy killing. 
Written and directed by Joe Calarco 

With Susannah Berryman, Minda Harden, Erik Sorenson, Timothy Getman, Susan Lynskey, Michael Glenn, Vanessa Lock
Setting by James Kronzer 
Costumes by Anne Kennedy 
Lighting by Chris Lee 
Sound by Brian Keating
Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington (703) 218-6500
Signature website: 
Opened Nov. 20, 2000, closes Dec. 17, 2000
Reviewed by Dolores Whiskeyman Nov. 24 based on a Nov. 20 performance.   

ęCopyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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