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A CurtainUp Review
Cruel and Unusual Treatment

The three -in-one offering at the former piano factory dubbed the Salon by the Culture Project consists of three short plays adapted from three short stories by Mary McCarthy and John Cheever. The spacious loft space has been divided into three stages, each with its own seating section. This sets up both the individuality and connection between the plays. It also gives the audience the sense of being at a party rather than a formal theater or, if you will, a real salon.

The McCarthy stories are linked through one character, Meg Sargent (Adrianna Dufay) who appears solo in the first and title story and again in the "Man In the Brooks Brothers Suit." They serve as bookends for the evening's piece de resistance, Cheever's psychological mini-masterpiece, "Five-Forty-Eight." While the McCarthy stories don't lend themselves quite as readily to dramatization the directors have integrated their individual efforts so that all three pieces work well together. All have an aura of life after World Wars I and II when the relations between men and women were on the brink of major attitudinal changes.

I re-read "Cruel and Barbarous Treatment" just before heading for the Salon so I can attest to the fact that its text has been kept intact, except for the needed shift from the third person to first person voice. The adaptation, a joint effort of its director and leading player, is aptly done as a staged monologue with the narrator taking the audience into her confidence as she moves in and out of her art deco bedroom and busies herself with, dressing, undressing and makeup.

Unfortunately, the story of a young New York society matron who toys with adultery and finds herself headed for Reno and the life of a woman who must constantly reinvent herself is somewhat dated and needs a bravura performance to keep the cobwebs from clinging to its shallow surface. Actresses from Mary McCarthy's era, like Barbara Stanwyck and Ingrid Bergman, come to mind. Ms. Dufay, while more than sufficiently attractive looking, fails to project the needed emotional and voice power.

"The Five-Forty-Eight" centers on Blake (J. Christopher O'Connor) a suburban executive and a mousy looking office worker, Miss Dent (splendidly and scarily played Annie McAdams). Blake seduced and then fired the mentally fragile young woman who has been unable to reach him at his office. Now, her shabby purse packed with a gun, she has sought him out on the commuter train where there's no one to keep her out. .

Cheever's story is even more chilling than it was on the printed page. With just a few folding chairs the audience is given a clear picture of a New York train station, the train on its way to Westchester and a deserted area near the Shady Hill station. Will Pomerantz has adapted and directed the story with great style and also collaborated with Miles Green on the sound design which contributes enormously to the overall.. The effect is that of an old-fashioned radio drama. At the front of the stage we have a narrator sitting at a microphone with his hat at a rakish angle and played with roguish charm by Brett Cramp. On the train and train station part of the stage, Miss Dent and Blake seague from narrating to acting out the past which has brought them to the present crisis. "The Five-Forty-Eight" is a model of page to stage adaptation and makes one eager to see what Pomerantz, who also adapted Christopher Isherwood's Prater Violet, will next dig out of our literary archives.

The final play also takes place on a train and features all four members of the cast of actors. Adrianna Dufay, much improved as an older Meg Sargent, is now a journalist whose single affair has mushroomed into countless unsatisfactory casual encounters. . J. Christopher O'Connor is again a cheating husband, but unlike the nasty Blake of the middle play, his Midwestern tycoon, Bill Breen, is a rather endearing and amusing. Brett Camp and Annie McAdams play supporting double roles, as passengers and a porter and maid. Despite its more elaborate staging, it lacks the pizazz and tension of Cheever's story.

Not to be overlooked in summing up the overall effectiveness of this evening is the choice and use of music. Mr. Urbinato's selection of Ravel and Debussy in the first play perfectly accompanies the young narrator's misguided sense of romantic adventure. When she finds herself "lifted to a new level of experience" after telling her husband about her affair, a violin is heard precisely as she says "All the strings of my nature were, at last vibrant." In the Cheever story we hear a Beethoven Sonata just as Blake describes the upright piano and Beethoven sheet music in Miss Dent's apartment on the night of the fateful seduction. Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train" makes for just the right launch for the train carrying the Brooks Brother suited Bill Breen off on his memorable interlude with Meg Sargent.

When all is said and done this anthology, even when less than perfect, has enough vigor to make a visit to the upper East Side Salon a most worthwhile theatrical outing. The opportunity to do so is limited, since this is a short and plays Thursday through Sundays only.

By Mary McCarthy
Adapted by Adrianna Dufay and Rob Urbinati
Directed by Rob Urbinati
Adrianna Dufay (Meg Sargent)
Set consultants: Dain Kalas and Bill Strauss
Costume design: David Robinson
Lighting design: Jeff M. Cusick

By John Cheever
Adapted and directed by Will Pomerantz
Brett Cramp (narrator), Adrianna Dufay (Meg Sargent), and J. Christopher O'Connor (Blake) Annie McAdams (Miss Dent)
Lighting design: Jeff M. Cusick
Sound design: Miles Greene and Will Pomerantz

Adapted by Adrianna Dufay and Annie McAdams
Directed by Erkik Sniedze
Adrianna Dufay (Meg Sargent), J. Christopher O'Connor (Bill Breen), Brett Cramp (Passenger 1/Porter), Annie McAdams (Passenger 2/Maid)
Costume design: David Robinson
Lighting design: Jeff Cusick

The Salon, 432 E. 91st St.
(Betw. First and York Ave --212/279-4200 -- 4, 5, 6 at 86th St.; 6 at 96 St.)
Thursdays through Saturday s 8 pm; Sundays at 3pm
3/03/99-3/27/99; opened 3/06/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer

©Copyright March 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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