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A CurtainUp Review

but the civilized person will negotiate with conscience
One learns this in a war
Conscience will collaborate

— Von Pfunz
Lisa Emery and Zach Grenier
When Gabriel premiered in London it was awarded the U.K.'s prestigious London Weekend Television Plays on Stage Award and the Meyer Whitworth Award. That was in 1997. Perhaps it's taken 13 years for the play to wend its way to these shores because it revolves around a slice of history that's either forgotten or little known to American audiences: When Vichy France surrendered to the German army in June 1940, the British government announced that the Channel Islands (Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Herm and Sark) that were so near to France were of no strategic importance and would not be defended. The residents of the Islands who did not leave lived under German military occupation until 1945 since even after D-Day the Allies concentrated on pushing forward to Germany.

The Atlantic Theater's belated American premiere of Gabriel features an fine cast and strong production values. Buffini's plot revolves around a man washed on shore, unconscious and without any memory of who he is. Intriguing though this is, the mix of poetic symbolism and melodrama somehow undercuts the inherent and very real drama of the actual events on these islands.

Buffini's penchant for symbolism is evident in the opening scene, before the mysterious stranger turns up in the humble quarters of Jeanne Becquet (Lisa Emery), a widow and farm owner who traces her ancestry back to the Island's oldest families, since the Nazis took over her more spacious and well furnished home. We see Jeanne's teen-aged daughter Estelle (Libby Woodbridge) engaged in a fantastical ceremony that she hopes will conjure up her brother (who's in the Royal Air Force) to vanquish the occupiers.

When not using the floor as her own version of a Ouija board, Estelle acts out her anger at the Germans by secretly stealing things from her now occupied former home. Part of Estelle's acting out is to counter her pragmatic mother's appeasement of the Nazis. As she bartered her sexual favors for advantages to the just departed officer in charge, so she is now engaged in doing the same with his successor, Major Von Pfuntz (Zach Grenier). The crafty Von Pfunz learns more about the household than he should by initially pretending to speak no English. This includes the information that Jeanne's daughter-in-law Lilian (Samantha Soule) is Jewish.

Since Von Pfuntz is smitten with Jeanne and is, as it turns out, a secret diarist and poet who fancies himself a noble soul trapped in a soldier's life, he is willing to overlook Estelle's mischief. Unfortunately his claim to sensitivity does not extend to Jews. Thus the tension about Lilian's future heightens. As if that and the overall difficulties of free people subjected to enemy rule weren't enough, there's the nearly dead man (Lee Aaron Rosen) Lilian finds on the beach. Lilian persuades the rest of the household, which includes family retainer Margaret Lake (Patricia Connolly), to help her nurse him back to health.

The mystery of the stranger's identity is conveniently thickened by the fact that a German boat sank and an SS officer aboard is missing and that an RAF plane plunged into the sea . The confusion as to whether he's the missing German or British is exacerbated by his speaking both languages fluently. Von Pfunz's tolerance for Estelle's mischief is further tested by her stealing his diary which includes poems about his experience in one of the concentration camps where Jews were systematically killed. (Buffini herself has written her script in blank verse).

Despite all the too handy coincidences, there's a fair share of provocative and literate dialogue about war and its corrosive effect on people's moral compasses. Lisa Emery an always interesting to watch actress ably handles the difficult role of the proud but practical Jeanne whose cynicism and toughness are seeded by fear and despair over the certainty that her beloved son will be killed or may already be dead. Zach Grenier, last seen as Beethoven in 33 Variations is alternately amusing and appalling as the weirdly atypical Major. Good as his acting is, his German accent is as odd as his character. Libby Woodbridge makes her Off-Broadway debut as the rebellious young girl, who's listed in the play as being 10-years old though the character seems to be at least 13 and Woodridge hardly looks young enough even for that age. Patricia Connolly and Samantha Soule, both actors who've enriched the stage with many fine performances, do so again as the housekeeper and the terrified but loving young Jewish woman. Lee Aaron Rosen, certainly looks the part of the rather obviously biblically linked title character, though he actually doesn't have that much to do.

Director David Esbjornson keeps things moving along and tries to create a sense of the audience being part of the action by having the actors use the aisles as well as the stage. Richardd Hernandez's abstract set evokes the right aura of gloom and doom. However, a more naturalistic set might have served this story better, and avoided confusion as to where we are in this ramshackle house at the edge of the farm's manor house . Ultimately, there's a sense of having seen bits and pieces of this in other World War II movies and the ending is way too overwrought to be credible.

Since PBS has increasingly used revivals of Masterpiece Theater serials, here's hoping they will bring back their own absorbing and less melodramatic take on the Channel Island occupation, Island of War. You might just find a bargain priced version of the 3-disk DVD if you surf the web.

Playwright: Moira Buffini
Director: David Esbjornson
Cast: Patricia Conolly (Margaret Lake), Lisa Emery (Jeanne Becquet), Zach Grenier (Von Pfunz), Lee Aaron Rosen (Gabriel), Samantha Soule (Lilian Becquet), Libby Woodbridge (Estelle Becquet)
Scenic design: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume design: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting design: Scott Zielinski Sound design: Obadiah Eaves
Wig design: Paul Huntley
Fight consultant: J. David Brimmer
Dialect coach: Ben Furey
Strage Manager: Alison DeSantis
Atlantic Theater Company Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th Street (212) 279-4200
From 4/23/10; opening 5/13/10; closing 6/20/10.
Tuesday through Friday at 8 PM, Wednesday at 2 PM, Saturday at 2 PM and 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM.
Tickets are $65.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 5/08/10 press performance
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