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A CurtainUp Review
Cycling Past the Matterhorn

It [the cycling trip to the top of the Matterhorn] was all glorious. I sat on my bike pedaling and crying. I didn't stop. And I couldn't tell if it was because I was so tired and sore -- Or because I finally realized how incredible this world is and how small I'd let my life become --- Esther

Shirley Knight & Brenda Wehle
Shirley Knight & Brenda Wehle in Cycling Past the Matterhorn
(Photo:Joan Marcus)
Deborah Grimberg's Cycling Past the Matterhorn is loaded with the sort of snappy reparté commonly found in the best of the annual Fringe Festival's offerings. Yet this transfer from the 2003 Fringe season, which now features Shirley Knight as the unlikely Matterhorn bound cycler, has more on its mind than laughs. The middle-aged Esther's cycling trip is as exhilarating and enlightening an adventure as her quick fling with a neighbor is not, and both are just episodes in a play that is anything but a feel good fairy tale in which a healthy dose of late in life get-up-and-go reverses the blows fate (blindness) and marriage (a hubby who has flown the coop) have dealt.

If Esther's daughter Amy (Carrie Preston), who's also not your run of the mill twenty-something or a world beater, doesn't just hesitate to support Mum in her hour of need but desperately rushes to escape becoming her caretaker by marrying her American boyfriend, it's because Esther is as much self-pitying, dull, monster mum as amusing and endearing eccentric. And so, this is something of a double coming of age story in which mother and daughter must learn to deal with each other and the critical bumps in their lives.

Esther, still reeling from her husband's leaving her for a bleached blonde flight attendant, must grapple with the doctor's verdict that she's going blind (I'm not being a spoiler as all this is revealed almost instantly), as well as the realization that she can't really count on her daughter to be with her. Amy, who has only recently gone out on her own after turning her lifelong ability to foresee major disasters into a career as a psychic at a London sidewalk stall, rebels at ceding her hard won independence from the mother who's never missed a chance to make an ego-deflating comment since Amy's birth (a difficult forceps delivery Esther blames for Amy's shortcomings). Her Aunt Anita (Brenda Wehle) insists that family's family and that a difficult relationship is no excuse for shirked filial responsibility.

Neither Amy or Esther's decisions and self-discoveries are especially revelatory. But while Esther determinedly faces her handicap with the declaration that "if Stevie Wonder could do it, " so could she, she's not a talented musician, or a talented anything -- just a very ordinary woman given to whining and needling her daughter. Fate (vis-a-vis an unanticipated family tragedy which I won't reveal) and an understanding boyfriend, nudges the self-absorbed Amy into doing what she has to do.

While Ms. Grimberg's story line is quite pedestrian and lives up to the first half of her name, her crackling dialogue and story telling method -- juxtaposing scenes so that characters who are apart seem to be in the same scene -- gives Cycling a fresh and trendy feel which Eleanor Holdridge's direction mines to maximum effect. But the amusing dialogue and structure aside, the main reason to see the play during its limited run is Shirley Knight, who despite being stuck with a fairly unsympathetic character has you rooting for her Stevie Wonder moments to blossom into a happily ever after ending.

Another standout performance comes from Brenda Wehle's as Esther's more spiffy looking, sardonic and supportive sister Anita. Carrie Preston's Amy is aptly hyper but the show stealer at her side of the stage is Nina Jacques, who was also in the Fringe production, as the chic single woman determined that Amy will find a Pisces man in her well manicured hand's life line. Ben Fox does his best as Amy's sweet, cypher-like boyfriend who's not quite as malleable as he initially appears to be.

Beowulf Boritt's semi-abstract set, Kiki Smith's costumes and Scott Killian's catchy original music all help to make this, if not a Matterhorn experience, a pleasant funny-sad outing.

By Deborah Grimberg
Directed by Eleanor Holdridge
Carrie Preston (Amy), Nina Jacques (Joanne), Shirley Knight (Esther), Brenda Wehle (Anita) and Ben Fox (Doug).
Scenic Design: Beowolf Borrit
Costume Design: Kiki Smith,
Lighting Design: Les Dickert
Original Music & Sound Design: Scott Killian
Running time: 2 hours, including an intermission.
Harold Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, 212-279-4200
12-week engagement from 9/18/05 to 12/12/05 --to an early grave 11/06/05 after 11 previews and 45 regular performances; opening 9/29/05
Tuesday to Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. with matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.
Tickets: $55
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 9/27 press performance
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