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A CurtainUp Review
Cooper Savage

by Les Gutman
That's the way things work around here. I yell and people move.
---Cooper Savage

Susan Finch and Jeff Branson
S. Finch and J. Branson
(Photo: Aaron Epstein)
If forced to condense my thoughts on Cooper Savage into a single phrase, I think I'd suggest one already used by Pirandello: six characters in search of an author. Bash Halow, the playwright of this new play (aided by its director, Blake Lawrence), has presented us with a half dozen vivid characters; he's also sent practically that many themes up the flagpole and even makes us laugh with sharp, authentic, well-written dialogue. What he hasn't done is find a way to make it all coalesce into a play.

The essential problem is that Mr. Halow tries to tell too many stories in his eighty minutes, and ends up telling none of them effectively. The title character (Susan Finch) is a mother living with her husband (Christopher Borg, who is heard but not seen), son (Luis Villabon), and mother (Rebecca Hoodwin). She also takes in a boarder, Randy (Jeff Branson). Cooper (or Coo, as she is called) is disdainful of men (an outgrowth of early, bad experiences, some related in flashbacks) and very keen on being a strong woman. It's a sense she also encourages in a neighbor girl, Tracy (Shay Gines), and probably explains why she is so unpleasant to her wheelchair-bound mother, now 97. Her son -- his name is Jeffrey -- is gay. That doesn't keep Theresa (Amy Bizjak), a girl from school, from falling for him.

I usually think I am a pretty good judge of character, but it's nice every once in a while to get some positive reïnforcement. I say this as a way of congratulating myself for pegging Randy as trouble. His over-active young libido sends him chasing almost everything that breathes, which here includes Coo (a stone wall), Tracy (an easy mark) and Jeffrey (who is amazed but swooning).

As written and staged, it's a theatrical three-ring circus, with a penultimate scene that exacerbates its lack of focus and an inexplicable final one that features a peculiar directorial choice that I'd better not divulge. When a play is named after one of its characters, its a good clue that's the story we should be paying attention to, but here the diversions are just too much.

It's a shame because the production features some fine performances that could have supported a much more meaningful experience. Ms. Finch conveys all of Coo's pent-up anger and flawed self-assurance and the two younger women are simply spectacular in creating spot-on characters. Ms. Hoodwin, struggling against a vast age differential, winningly supplies much of the show's humor as the cranky, lonesome grandmother. Mr. Branson oozes with the sort of sexy-dangerous qualities Randy brings to the proceedings, without being excessive and, while a more physically nerdy Jeffrey might have worked better, Mr. Villabon endeavors with considerable success to let Jeffrey melt in the face of his mother's intensity, Randy's machismo and Theresa's enthusiasm.

Sandra Goldmark's set for this presentation is particularly impressive -- creating a woody and woodsy effect that is evocative of the play's central Virginia setting and also supplying both three frames for parallel action and branches of a tree that are essential to the staging. Lights, costumes and sound design are also first rate. Whatever the work's deficiencies, it can't be said they lacked support.

Cooper Savage