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Bal Masque

If he said it, then I must be real. -- Owen

Jeff Allin as Trey, Todd Scofield as Russell
J. Allin and Todd Scofield
(Photo: Stan Barouh)

Theater J's world premiere of Richard Greenberg's Bal Masque is a witty, urbane and ultimately ferocious deconstruction of one celebrated night in American pop culture. Centered during the early morning hours of November 29, 1966, Greenberg's story looks at the aftermath of Truman Capote's famed Black and White Ball.

Mr. Greenberg places his microscope on three couples and the intertwining of their lives, following their attendance at the masked party. They include: Trey and Greer, a married duo who are obviously spouses in name only. Marietta and Russell, a wealthy husband and wife who have a strained relationship. And Owen and Joanna, an artist and his wife who appear to have arrived from the backwoods of Virginia. As everyone ponders the party, we see unraveling psyches obsessing over either inclusion in Capote's clique and wondering how close they are to being central to the artist, or how far from their own lives they have strayed and how dearly they want to return to their true identities.

It's this double use of masques that Mr. Greenberg has so skillfully employed. While half the cast is hiding behind their masks of emptiness, hoping to be noticed and validated by the famed writer, the other half is wishing to remove the facades that they have built their lives behind, and breathe more freely.

Thus as Greer (a wealthy socialite with very little to do) is agonizing over the fact that she -- one of Capote's "swans" -- was removed from the guest list at the last minute, her husband Trey is itching to go for a long solitary walk through Central Park to "buy a pack of cigarettes." The truth is, poor Greer has aged and Capote wants to be cruel, simply because -- he can.

Meanwhile in another apartment, Marietta (a wealthy socialite with very little to do) has ordered her husband Russell to wander the streets until sunrise, because she is "interviewing" Owen, an artist whom Capote has pointed out to her as being ripe for patronage. Russell thus dutifully escorts Owen's sickly wife Joanna (a young woman with nothing to do) home, whereupon, the mixed pairs begin to have heart-to-heart talks: Marietta and Owen discussing how much Capote likes them, Russell and Joanna filled with an inner sadness at being part of hip society.

Mr. Greenberg twists his plot well, so that everyone has a secret they need to express or are in search of a secret to share with Capote. Greer is dumbfounded over her exclusion and feels there must be some secret to why she was not invited and thus "forced" to endure the entire evening as an outcast hovering by the ballroom door and in the ladies' room. Marietta is desperate to uncover a secret within Owen in order to seal her place in Capote's affections. Owen is ecstatic to concoct a fake secret to improve his image with the writer.

Trey is carrying around his own secret, which accounts for his disdain for the out Capote who thrives on gossip. Joanna, who appears to be the most unsophisticated of the group, actually has the greatest secret -- a secret that really would seal Marietta's affection with Capote -- if only Marietta would take an interest in meek Joanna. And Russell, who not only has his own secret which would topple Marietta's place amongst the swans, also knows Joanna and Owen's dark tale. But Marietta, literally, doesn't have the time of day for the man who happens to be her husband.

The final scene occurs with Trey and Russell meeting just before dawn in Central Park, realizing they not only graduated from the same alma mater and are actually distant in-laws, but also saw each other at the ball and hated the entire party. After chatting they see they have something else in common -- a desire to honestly connect without the facades they have been wearing to protect their stature among the city's wealthy elite. And this seems to be Greenberg's main point within the play -- the masks we wear are of our own creation. We can remove them, they are not forced upon us, we simply have to have the courage to take a step forward and reveal ourselves. Others may not like what we show -- but what does their opinion really matter in the greater scheme of our lives?

Director John Vreeke has pulled together a great cast. The timing of this production is perfect; the tones, inflections and dry wit are wonderful. Set and lighting designer Daniel Conway has created a fitting stage that first appears like a great hall in a museum -- fittingly Trey and Greer's empty living room -- which reflects their empty marriage. Next it becomes Russell and Marietta's posh 13-room apartment and Owen and Joanna's tiny one-bedroom. The nature scene of New York City and Central Park is also wonderfully done with lights and an illusionary backdrop.

Matt Rowe's sound design begins as soon as you enter into the theatre with the sound of party noise and revelers floating from beyond the stage. Kathleen Geldard's costumes are chic evening wear with the men in basic tuxedos and the women in floor-length gowns.

In the cast, Jeff Allin creates a staid Trey pondering his reputation of conformity. His perfunctory and matter-of-fact delivery belies what he is really thinking. As Greer, Brigid Cleary is a distraught wife who knows her husband's secret -- even if she won't admit it to herself. The moment when they remove their masks, and their witty banter comes to a screeching halt as they realize they have nothing substantial to say to each other, speaks volumes.

Maia DeSanti's speech impaired Marietta is a treat as she offers up intellectual theories like "So I can be a positive force on society, I must retrain myself to love what I hate." while simultaneously running high heeled circles around Cameron McNary's southern artist. Mr. McNary's Owen is an uptight painter who seems to be hiding something darker within him, while trying to claw his way into Capote's inner circle, to receive the crown prince's blessing and be validated as, not only an artist, but also a person.

Colleen Delany brings out the rural Joanna's uncomfortableness with humor and pathos. Each time she nasally says "May I ask you to sit?" and then throws out her hands with a slight kneel, there's a chuckle throughout the audience. Between frequent trips to the bathroom and a slow build up to her revelation, you understand why Todd Scofield's Russ is so anxious to run out the front door. (It's easy to forget that this show takes place entirely in the early morning hours, which explains Joanna's frequent trips to the porcelain god.)

Mr. Scofield's likeable Russ Abbott reveals little about himself, but it's in what he's not saying that he brings the character alive. By the time he has arrived in Central Park with Trey, you realize this is a man who has no clue who he is or what he is about. He's followed the rules, listened to everyone else and ended up unhappy in his home life, disrespected by his wife and unknowing where he is heading.

All in all, Bal Masque is a great success and a definite treat. Washington audiences should give this gem a look in its first state -- since there are most likely changes to be made before it reaches New York -- where, I imagine, it will materialize at some point soon.

Bal Masque
by Richard Greenberg
Directed by John Vreeke
with Jeff Allin, Brigid Cleary, Maia DeSanti, Cameron McNary, Colleen Delany, and Todd Scofield
Set and Lighting Design: Daniel Conway
Sound Design: Matt Rowe
Costume Design: Kathleen Geldard
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
A production of Theater J
Washington DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street NW
Telephone: Tickets 1-800-494-8497, Info 202-777-3214
WED - THUR @7:30, SAT @8, SUN @3 and 7:30; $15-$40
Opening 04/05/06, closing 05/21/06
Reviewed by Rich See based on 04/16/06 performance
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© 2006  Elyse Sommer.