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A CurtainUp Review
Dex + Julie Sittin in a Tree

What's gotten into you? — Dex
Lately? Nothing. — Julie

John Lumia and Jennifer Childs (Photo: Mark Garvin)
In his program note, Arden's Producing Artistic Director Terrence J Nolen introduces the World Premiere of Bruce Graham's new play as part of the inaugural Philadelphia New Play Festival that celebrates "Philadelphia as a hotbed of new play activity. " Dex + Julie Sittin in a Tree, with its inauspicious title, is about a twenty five year grudge. Michael Dexter (John Lumia) and Dr. Julie Chernitsky (Jennifer Childs) were an item when they were college students. She was in love. Then he walked. The action of the play happens years later. It's set in the midst of the Bush/Kerry election, which is briefly mentioned.

Julie has stayed in town and is a tenured English professor. Using her old " in" with Dex, now a well known defense attorney, she has arranged for the college to confer an award on him. He stays at her house during his visit. The promising opening scene has Dex giving orders to his office on his cell while Julie flits about wearing just a man's shirt.

This play is about retribution and maybe about how revenge may not be so sweet even when served cold. Information is leaked so the audience can see things coming and appreciate what a character doesn't yet know. It's a clever enough and often funnyadult drama with its sex talk and age-related problems.

Almost endearingly the hotshot lawyer travels with his private pharmacopia for arthritis, blood pressure, allergies and more. But lengthy and curiously unproductive catching-up chats might as easily apply to chance meetings of any pre-geezers in the audience. The same scant territory is rehashed too long and too often, and the tactics and eventual revelations don't warrant all the fuss.

The award-receiving element is given almost no play. Dex and Julie's recent lives essentially remain a mystery. We learn that he's concerned about "female treachery," and that his life isn't so fabulous. Her life seems pretty pathetic. Both appear uninterested in their work as lawyer and professor. Neither seems particularly nice, but at least that makes for snappy answers. There's only a sketchy sense of the lovers' relationship back when. Finally, the playing field isn't level: one is loaded for bear and the other is a walking target with no ammo. Where's the contest?

Going in, this production had everything it needed to work. . .

Playwright Bruce Graham, who penned Coyote on a Fence, According to Goldman, and many other works, recently won the 2006 "Set in Philadelphia" screenwriting competition. Graham has the craft — he's got plotting down cold and he has a way with repartee. He also knows the Arden audience and he has his ideal director in James J. Christy, who can direct anything Graham throws at him. The production has two very good actors, Jennifer Childs and John Lumia and a design Dream Team. Drum roll please: On set, James Wolk. On lighting, Jerold R. Forsyth. On sound, Jorge Cousineau. On costumes, Janus Stefanowicz. Who could want more??

But the brilliant mix does not produce brilliant results because the play needs both less and more— more dimension and less filler. With the scope of bite-size TV realism, it needs silence, electricity, and loft.

Director Christy, manipulating the dynamics of up close versus separated, keeps the long two-person discussions from becoming somnolent. Complicating his staging decisions is the fact that these long separated characters will have a certain awkwardness. Still, Childs and Lumia must connect as actors. I recall thinking Jennifer Childs is better than this, as is Lumia, who was strong in Killer Joe. Here they need more history to work with. As is, it's a bit like watching Bob Hope and waiting for his punch lines.

There's tremendous talent in the sound, lighting, and set design departments, demonstrated in subtle mood variations and thunder, lightning, and rain effects. Music choices evoke Dex and Julie's old romance. The set is attractive and extremely articulated, from the Frank Lloyd Wright-esque windows to the working microwave. It leaves nothing to the imagination. Nothing. I picture van der Rohe, the old less is more guy, looking at the modern rural cabin represented on stage and wonder what he'd make of it.

Dex + Julie, although clever and carefully structured, is stretched too thin over too little territory. Not quite a tempest, it's a storm in a teapot.

Dex + Julie Sittin in a Tree
By Bruce Graham
Directed by James J. Christy
Cast: Jennifer Childs, John Lumia
Scenic Design: James Wolk
Lighting Design: Jerold R. Forsyth
Sound Design: Jorge Cousineau
Costume Design: Janus Stefanowicz

Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with one 15 minute intermission
The Arden Theater, 40 N. 2nd Street From 01/11/07 — 03/04/07
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 1/18 performance.
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