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A CurtainUp Review

By Les Gutman

There's a bit of armchair psychiatrist in all of us. I suspect it's why plays about screwed-up families are so popular. But the case of the Underfinger Family takes the cutglass flyswatter -- it would leave even seasoned professionals shaking their heads.

Freedomland (which gets its name from a now-defunct theme park in the Bronx) returns the three grown children of Noah Underfinger (John Dow) to the family home in upstate New York. Their diversity suggests something about the random walk theory of child-rearing. Sig (Kimberly Schraf) is an artist living in New York City. She's aggressively defensive about having capitalized on the market for sad clown paintings (e.g., Clowns Attending the Funeral of a Parakeet). Polly (Deb Gottesman) is a discomfited perpetual student/feminist. Her life's work seems to be a dissertation called "The Secret Lives of the Women of the Iliad." The final child, Seth (Christopher Lane), is a violent lunatic who lives "off-mainframe" -- something along the lines of the Unabomber, only more physically threatening.

Although getting to know Noah is almost an oxymoron, it does explain, more or less, how three children could turn out as these did. Paranoid, discombobulated and no doubt suffering from the effects of too many hallucinogens, his ark shipwrecked long before it reached dry land. (Biblical allusions are not incidental; he is even a retired religion professor.) His first wife (the children's mother) left to become a hobo. His second wife, Claude (Nancy Robinette), is a freakishly oversexed therapist suffering from a wickedly hilarious case of shrink-speak.

There are two phenomena at work here. The first is the human avalanche Amy Freed has concocted and that Howard Shalwitz has staged. Overflowing with both large and small elements of the human condition, this family sometimes takes on the vast feel of plays like Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth. (see link) This is a play that successfully mixes the Bible and bulimia, Middle English and the verbal equivalent of the middle finger. Somehow, the admixture of crazy characters, extra-smart and very funny writing, sharp, knowing and vigorous direction and several exceptional performances succeeds in capturing and maintaining the audience's interest.

The second phenomena is that it's practically impossible to tell a story through the mouths of crazy and/or confused people. Listening to one of many inane exchanges between Noah and Seth, one of the characters exclaims, "What was that?" It's a question that comes to mind often as one listens to the babel that sometimes seizes control of the stage, especially whenever Noah's mouth is open. It makes the story-telling problematic at times and, notwithstanding its distinction as a Pulitzer nominee, keeps the play securely in the "good but not great" category.

To be fair, in the director's notes in the playbill, Howard Shalwitz seemingly accepts the blurriness as a given, framing the family members' inability to bring any sort of vision into focus as the play's theme. "After many ignominious moments, Noah finally has a vision. It is not an easy one, nor perhaps a clear one". As New York audiences anticipate what Shalwitz might do with this play at Playwrights Horizons in November (he will direct it there with a different cast), this would suggest they may not leave with any greater insight or satisfaction.

One thing that these back-to-back productions does afford is the chance to play casting director -- which Underfingers would I take to New York, given the opportunity, and which would I leave behind? The answer, as it turns out, is fairly easy. I'd take the women and leave the men.

Both of the daughters could not be better. Schraf has fine-tuned the play's driest comic role into a keenly-timed, entirely apt performance. Gottesman is sublimely neurotic; I can't see how Polly's character could be improved upon. As the frighteningly bizarre Claude, Nancy Robinette again takes a role and makes it appear that it could not possibly have been written for anyone else. Her performance alone is worth the price of admission.

The two Underfinger men have problems for me that no performance is likely to overcome. Still, Dow and Lane bring little to their characters other than insipidity and, in the latter case, brute force; perhaps other actors would. For the record, the cast has two other characters. Titus is a magazine editor writing a cover story of Sig. The role is played with perfect sheepishness by Jason Gilbert. Lori, Seth's barefoot-and-pregnant companion, is portrayed by Rhea Seehorn, who seems to have found a single, admittedly funny, dimension for her character and not ventured beyond it.

Lewis Folden's set design makes unique demands of Woolly Mammoth's space, and in this there is a caution. His layered, see-through design works quite well and even finds, within the theater's limited confines, a way to suggest a roof on which characters occasionally sit. But he uproots the front row of seats in the center of Woolly's angular "thrust" configuration and plants them onstage, house left. This creates a fourth "angle" which (although I didn't sit there) seems a less desirable vantage point. (The extension Folden adds to the stage also means that some patrons must traverse this section of stage to get to or from their seats.)

Freedomland in NYC
Skin Of Our Teeth

by Amy Freed 
Directed by Howard Shalwitz 
with Kimberly Schraf, Jason Gilbert, John Dow, Deb Gottesman, Nancy Robinette, Christopher Lane and Rhea Seehorn. 
Scenic Design: Lewis Folden 
Costume Design: Jane Schloss Phelan and Lynn Steinmetz 
Lighting Design: Lisa L. Ogonowski 
Sound Design: Hana Sellers 
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 1401 Church Street NW Telephone (202) 393 - 3939 
opened September 19 closes October 11, 1998 
Reviewed by Les Gutman September 22, 1998

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