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A CurtainUp Review

Frame312 by Elyse Sommer

Breaking it down to individual frames. The President is shot initially at frame 225, Connally struck between frames 231 and fram 234. The President is hit a second time at frame 312
--- Roy, concluding a running commentary on the famous Abraham Zapruder film that captured the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Mary Beth Peil
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The assassination of John F. Kennedy remains a mystery that stubbornly resists the stamp of a final case closed. The documentation of conspiracy theories has probably destroyed a whole forest of trees. The assassination and speculations about its details have been dramatized and documentarized in TV specials, made into a film by Oliver Stone. Kennedy's shooting and has even been musicalized by Stephen Sondheim in his soon to be revived Assassins.

Depending upon how you view it, the assassination is one of those ever timely events for which a new "angle" is always possible -- or a case of the perennial sleeping dog that should be allowed to rest without further fuss. Keith Reddin, one of the Off-Broadway scene's more inventive and prolific playwrights, is obviously a member of the first school. His Frame312 takes its title from Abraham Zapruder's much publicized amateur film, specifically "frame" that captured the second shot that killed Kennedy. Since the film was purchased from Zapruder by Life which devoted two issues to printing stills from the film but otherwise kept it from public view, Reddin has chosen to weave the larger than life story (or to give the unintended pun its due, larger than Life) into a cause-and-effect mystery involving a young woman named Lynette who happened to be a secretary at Life when it bought the Zapruder tapes.

The premise is that Lynette's boss, Graham, entrusts her to deliver the film to J. Edgar Hoover. Since Lynette is pretty much alone in the world and has a tendency to fear that she could disappear without anyone noticing or caring, being a player in this drama brings her latent paranoid tendencies to a full boil. The film turns out to be a copy and when Graham becomes terminally ill (possibly caused by the same mysterious forces that killed Roy, Life's hired ballistics expert who also saw the original "Frame312"), he persuades her to become the guardian of the original (which has a quot;" that has been edited by the FBI to conform to their public statements). Graham tells her to hold on to the film until a time when people could accept it as the truth. It takes Lynette thirty years to share the film and when she does it's not with the public, but with the family whose dysfunctionality is apparently caused in no small measure by her obsession with her secret.

As in his finely realized and often comic drama, Brutality of Fact, which used the religious sect catastrophe in Waco to explore the overall cause and effect of religious extremism on an ordinary family, Reddin is here using the Kennedy assasination to combine mystery with family drama. While Lynette's special trust is unique to her life and family situation, the enormous changes since the Kennedy days have affected everyone -- especially women. Unfortunately, the characters in this play are too bland and uninvolving for either the conspiratorial mystery angle or the family drama to connect. We end up learning nothing new about the assassination and caring little about the characters we've met -- even with Mary Beith Peil doing a bang-up job as the sad, remote older Lynette. Had this woman held on to the job she loved or returned to it after her kids started school, she would not have become the isolated, remote widow of a husband who one suspects never made it possible for her to find the right moment to discuss anything important to her (like her promotion to assistant editor during their engagement, or the film she secretly and obsessively watches over the years).

Flawed as it is, Reddin's script, especially as ably directed by Karen Kohlhaas, does hold your interest in its cross-cutting between Lynette's early 1960s days at Life and her first birthday since her husband's death which her children have come to celebrate with her. The uncelebratory nature of this event as a reflection of the fallout of Lynette's secret on the emotional climate in this home can be seen at every turn: in the animosity between daughter Stephanie and son Tom. . .  in the self-absorption of the latter and the discontent of the former. . .  and in the overall lack of warmth and communication embodied in a very well done scene in which everyone is locked into a seemingly endless Pinteresque pause. Walt Spangler's sloped backyard set handily accommodates the flashbacks as well the New Jersey home where Lynette has been a self-imposed prisoner of her paranoia and the sort of marriage the women's movement prompted many women to either leave or re-negotiate. Some of those flashbacks are enriched by Reddin's way with comedy. The young Lynette's cagey meeting with the FBI agent who is to take her to Hoover's office, stands out, as does an exchange with her friend Margie about whether it was Audrey Hepburn did the singing in My Fair Lady. The backyard scenes have some warm moments, notably those giving a hint of a better relationship to come between Lynette and Stephanie.

Besides Mary Beth Peil's sensitive portrayal of the older Lynette, Elizabeth Hanly Rice (who replaced the previously announced Ana Reeder) is excellent as the jumpy, depressed social worker daughter. Thanks to a matching hairdo and headband, Mandy Siegfried, actually looks like the younger Lynette though she doesn't make much of this young woman's incipient paranoia and depression. Greg Stuhr, besides doing a good job in portraying the obnoxious Tom, ably multi-tasks with three other small roles. Maggie Kiley, besides playing Tom's pretty but boring wife, does the best she can with two other rather thankless roles Finally, there's Larry Brygman as Lynette's ill-fated boss, Graham. Brygmann is incapable of being anything short of excellent, but this is hardly a role that shows off this fine actor's talents.

Everything that happens, past or present, is geared to Lynette's telling her secret to her children and where she's going to take it from there. Her decision will come as a surprise only to those who don't realize that the props in a set, especially one as spare as this, are never put in haphazardly. Thus, as a gun seen in the first act is bound to go off in the last, an object that's prominent early on will be part of the action before the lights dim. I'll leave it to you to be surprised or identify the smoking gun.

Brutality Of Fact

FFrame 312
Written by Keith Reddin
Directed by Karen Kohlhaas
Cast: Larry Bryggman, Maggie Kiley, Mary Beth Peil, Elizabeth Hanly Rice, Mandy Siegfried, Greg Stuhr
Set Design: Walt Spangler
Costume Design: Mimi O'Donnell
Lighting Design: Robert Perry
Sound Design: Scott Myers.
Running time: 2 hours with 1-15 minute intermission.
Atlantic Theater, 336 W. 20th St. (8/9Aves) 212-239-6200
Tuesday - Saturday @8PM, Saturday @2PM, Sunday @3PM -- $45
12/03/04 to 1/11/04; opened 12/11/03
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 10th press performance

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