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A CurtainUp Review

"How much do you really know a person?" —Sara Jane
Alexandra Silber (Photo by Carol Rosegg
One of the most fertile grounds for creative expression is, unfortunately, war. Stories generated from and set against the backdrops of both war front and home front are often deeply compelling, particularly when the society is as familiar with conflict as ours is after the past two decades of international conflict.

Juxtaposing stories from the two fronts is trickier, particularly on stage. Both are so filled with potential drama that trying to compress them into one show with a reasonable running time is a challenge. But I'm happy to report that although a bit uneven, the Vineyard Theatre's production of Victor Lodato's Arlington meets that challenge by a good margin, and the result is an excellent and thought-provoking show.

Arlington bills itself as a musical, but in practice the hour long show plays out more like an operetta, with essentially no talking and only occasional obvious transitions from song to song. The music, written by Obie-award winning composer Polly Pen, veers from sentimental and American heartland to discordant and definitively postmodern. While I wasn't sure about this approach at first, by the time the show was in full swing I understood why Pen chose to approach things this way.

Arlington tells the story of Sara Jane (Alexandra Silber), a naive housewife somewhere in middle America waiting for her husband Jerry (Ben Moss, who also acts as the accompanist for Silber) to come home from an unspecified but very familiar war. Sara is sweet, effusive, and funny — and also compulsive, bigoted and ignorant, getting most of her information about the outside world from television, her cynical mother and occasional texts from Jerry. At first Sara seems pleasant but utterly forgettable, a sort of cotton candy character with no lasting value, but as the show goes on we begin to see more and more flaws appear in the perfect veneer she's used to cover over her life. The gradual series of revelations is both uncomfortable and compelling.

The show itself, which premiered in San Francisco late last year, is carefully and smartly written, and both Lodato and director Carolyn Cantor deserve credit for giving it the space and time to work. Pen's music nicely mirrors the gradual breakdown in Sara's carefully crafted exterior. Dane Laffrey's set —which deserves mention as one of the more effective ones I've seen in a long time — foregrounds the all-American perfection of Sara's living room against the initially non-descript backdrop of Jerry on piano, gradually revealing more of its location to devastating effect as Jerry's own actions in the war become more evident. Put together, this is an exceptionally well-conceived and executed physical space.

But Silber and Moss are what literally and figuratively make Arlington sing. Silber is completely convincing as a thoughtful, loving but deeply troubled and conflicted woman who is having trouble reconciling her upbringing and marriage with the reality of what she is increasingly confronting. Her nuanced portrayal of Sara's transformation is exceptional. Moss, who needs to render Jerry's actions and motivations as a young, macho soldier way over his head while still providing musical accompaniment at the piano, is almost as good. Together, they create a highly effective duo with great chemistry, despite being physically separated for the whole of the performance.

As much as I'm impressed with it, Arlington is a bit uneven at times. It's so short that the experience feels almost undeveloped (the end seems particularly abrupt), and the limited number of transitions makes most of the songs blur into each other rather than stand on their own.

You aren't likely to be humming any of these pieces on your way out of the theater. Then again, I suspect Lodato, Pen, Cantor and company would rather you left thinking about the messages inherent in the work than whistling a catchy tune, and in that regard this show succeeds in spades.

As a whole, Arlington is an ambitious and largely successful production in the finest tradition of Vineyard Theatre, and it's well worth seeing.

Book and Lyrics: Victor Lodato
Music: Polly Pen
Director: Carolyn Cantor
Cast: Ben Moss (Jerry/Pianist), Alexandra Silber (Sarah Jane)
Scenic Design: Dane Laffrey
Costume Design: Jess Goldstein
Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Running time: One hour
Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th Street, (212) 353-0303
From 2/12/14 to 3/23/14, opening 3/2/14
Tuesday-Wednesday @ 7 p.m., Thursday-Saturday @ 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday @ 3 p.m.
Tickets: $75-$100
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson
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