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A CurtainUp Review

Oh! what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive---Walter Scott

Foreground: Perri Gaffney; In rear: Gha'il Rhodes Benjamin
(Photo: Richard Termine)
According to an old Southern woman quoted in the Thomas Gibbons' play the hyphenated title refers to "the next stop after hell" where you'll be if you don't get off a train's last stop. This bit of 1930s railroad jargon doesn't offer much of a clue as to what to expect. A tag line of The True Story of Libby Price or A Literary Mystery would be enlightening (and a draw for ticket buyers) without spoiling the aura of intrigue the playwright obviously intends to set up. At any rate, my quibble about the title aside, the play's limited run New York premiere is worth a trip to the New Heron Arts Center.

While Bee-luther-hatchee is a mystery, it's not a thriller but an issue play. Make that multiple issues. Mr. Gibbons' central character, a young African-American book editor who, when she finally meets the reclusive author of a best-selling memoir, finds herself in her own bee-luther-hatchee -- a cauldron brimful and boiling with painful questions of race, literary license, honesty, celebrity and money. All these issues make for more talk than action and the second act is indeed essentially a debate between the editor and the author whose appearance at the end of act one is enough of a cliffhanger to insure against any intermission walkouts.

The play may be somewhat talky, but that talk is provocative enough to make for continued discussion after it ends. What's more, Jim Pelegano and his design team have handled the back and forth shifts from within the pages of the Bee-luther-hatchee book within the Bee-luther-hatchee play with a mood-shifting double-tiered set that, given the theater's size limitations, warrants special praise. The director has also elicited generally fine performances from the five member cast, two of whom (Catherine Eaton and Lance Spellerberg) play double roles.

The question of who owns a story is of course one that has been previously dramatized in plays like Donald Margulies' Collected Stories, which in turn was inspired by the legal battle involving David Leavitt's novel about poet Stephen Spender. Lillian Hellman's Pentimento brought much attention to questions pertaining to the dividing line between fiction and memoir. What gives Mr. Gibbons' play yet another spin is that it adds the explosive issue of cultural identity.

The play spends most of its time in the present. Since the plot revolves around a popular memoir by a 72-year-old publicity shy African-American Southern woman, the first scene aptly shows the book's editor, Shelita Burns (Perri Gaffney), accepting an award on her author's behalf. This is followed by a straightforward series of scenes establishing the book's impact on Shelita's personal life and career. In the course of shepherding Libby Price's story to publication, Shelita has developed strong filial feelings towards the author even though they've communicated only through letters. Her jump to the fast career track and increasing need to meet the author are detailed through get-togethers with Anna, a close friend (a fine performance by Catherine Eaton), and an interview with a writer from the New York Times.

Anna typifies Gibbons' practice of having white as well as African-American characters in his often race oriented plays. Anna serves as the alarm ringer, warning her friend not to go counter to the author's wish for absolute privacy. Some of the reporter's questions also telescope potential problems. Shadowing these New York scenes is the upstage figure of a woman who seems to be the elusive author (Gha'il Rhodes Benjamin).

It's almost impossible to discuss the arguments that transform drama into debate after the intermission without giving away the cliffhanger revelation as well as facts about the relationships in the Libby Price memoir that further expand the second act debate. Readers who want to be surprised should skip the text in the yellow box after the production notes.

The second act, while raising fascinating literary conundrums, falters as a drama. This despite the fact that there's a lot of passion as we see Shelita's passionate commitment to giving life to long silent voices pitted against Sean Leonard (Thomas James O'Leary in a somewhat creepy if gripping portrayal), the play's spokesperson for focusing on the words rather than the author.

The structural weaknesses of the second act also apply to the ending. It's disappointing, but not because the playwright leaves most of the questions raised unanswered. That's actually one of the play's strengths. I also have no quarrel with Shelita's action about how to deal with the book she has nurtured since it adds to the post theater discussions. What weakens the end is that both Shelita and Sean resort to actions that smack more of dramatic device than credibility.

As with Black Russians (the review), Mr. Gibbons' only other play reviewed at CurtainUp, the good news is that these weaknesses notwithstanding, Bee-luther-hatchee offers plenty of rewards to make it worth seeing -- not the least of which is that it's one of New York's few bargain priced theatrical offerings.

Written by Thomas Gibbons
Directed by Jim Pelegano
Cast: Perri Gaffney, Thomas James O'Leary, Gha'il Rhodes Benjamin, Catherine Eaton, Lance Spellerberg.
Set & Lighting Design : Roman Tatarowiczz
Costume Design: Karl A. Ruckdeschel
Sound Design: Dean Gray
Running time: 2 hours with an intermission.
Blue Heron Arts Center 123 E. 24th St. SmartTix 212-868-4444
3/12/04 to 4/04/04; opening 4/14/04.
Wed - Sat at 8pm, Sun at 3pm -- $15.
Open seating
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 3/17/04 performance

When Shelita goes to Charlotte to personally deliver the prize for best new non-fiction work to Libby Price, the author she has begun to identify with her own lost mother, turns out to be Sean Leonard, a middle-aged white man. The black woman we've seen upstage is the real Libby Price who turns out to be someone whose "voice" he got to know as a young boy. Her connection to him and his father adds another layer to the mystery and inflames Shelita's rage at having been betrayed since it seems to be yet another case of a white Southerner using literature to deal with past exploitations of black women.

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