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A CurtainUp Review

Last Easter

So the plan is. . .They're going to take me to Lourdes and I'm going to be miraculously cured of secondary cancer from which no one recovers by a phenomenon celebrated by a religion I don't believe in without my knowing it. . . ---June

Last Easter Cast
The Cast of Last Easter, Veanne Cox & Jeffrey Carlson (center), Florencia Lozano (left), Clea Lewis (right)
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Byrony Lavery's Frozen was about about the horror of pedophile serial killings. Not exactly a barrel of forget-your-troubles laughs experience. To reward New York audiences who responded warmly enough to Frozen for producers to move it from Off-Broadway to Broadway the playwright declared in a recent interview that she wanted to give theater goers the "Big Laugh" they deserved, "something they could laugh all the way through."

Ms. Lavery's promised "Big Laugh," again for MCC Theater, is called Last Easter. It's an apt title. The Irving Berlin film and theme song figure as a lot more than incidental music and the play's action spans two Easters in the lives of four friends, one of whom is suffering from incurable, secondary cancer. Cancer, a Big Laugh?!?! Excuse me, is Ms. Lavery kidding us? Having seen what she could do with an unpalatable subject in Frozen, I overcame my apprehension about stirring up still raw memories of two friends who recently lost their battle with cancer and went to the Lortel Theatre. I'm pleased to report that Last Easter is indeed a comedy. Its inevitably serious thematic undercurrents are moving but not painful to watch and the stricken June's three colleagues provide us with a look at friendship that's as inspiring as it is funny.

When reduced to its basics, Last Easter is a much told tale: vibrant, active woman who loves her work (theatrical lighting design) gets the "big C" diagnosis; tries to keep stiff upper lip through surgery, hair loss and pain; those nearest and dearest (in this case theater colleagues) rally round and all ends inevitably. But Last Easter has some genuine blue chip assets to make it work as a comedy rather than as a maudlin tearjerker. For starters, we have Veanne Cox who, as June, the core character, demonstrates that she can do restrained irony as well as her more familiar and less constrained brand of wit. Happily, Ms. Lavery has fleshed out her story with a unique and eccentric group of characters (all of whom are rendered with winning warmth by a well-chosen cast) and she once again demonstrates her skill for avoiding the stasis common to so many scripts in which actors more often address the audience than each other. Finally, there's the terrific staging by director Doug Hughes and the designers who served Frozen so well.

Like many plays, this one is mounted without a curtain which gives early arrivals an opportunity to take in the clutter of Hugh Landwehr's set which is largely taken up with all manner of stage props. With a central character who's a lighting designer, these props are dominated by all sorts of lights which the play's lighting designer, Clifton Taylor, activates at all the right moments. Even the lamp next to the settee on which June spends much of her time is a ghost light.

The story proceeds straightforwardly enough, with June reacting rather stoically to a phone call that brings the devastating news about her illness. Her calmness is in sharp contrast to the the emotional despair of her friends Leah (Clea Lewis), an American prop maker living in England and Gash (Jeffrey Carlson), a female impersonator. The pair sublimate their distress through black humor that includes regularly delivered doctor and nurse jokes. They also come up with a scheme to rent the house of a French friend which is near Lourdes, famous for miracle cures. Knowing that for June "the only thing religion's got going for it is The Lighting" they decide to keep silent about Lourdes but to just pretend they're taking June on an Easter holiday. To cut down on house and car rental expenses they take along Joy (Florencia Lozano) another actor friend, who's in a constant alcoholic fury about a lover named Howie who committed suicide (Jeffrey Scott Green, playing this rather vague character as a ghostly figure who wanders in and out of the play). The four chairs used to suggest the car fit the wild humor of the trip. The absurdist humor prevails even when they arrive at Lourdes. Catholic Gash, Jewish Leah and Buddhist of sorts Joy fervently pray for Lourdes to deliver on its promise even though the place is more circus than holy place.

Though the miracle doesn't work, Carlson does have one marvelously campy, red gown with wimple Saint Bernadette riff before the predictably darker second act and June does find a way to deal with her death. True to her aim to keep us laughing all the way through, the one big handkerchief scene is followed by a finale in which Joy, Leah and Gash remember June, with -- what else -- but another round of outrageous anecdotes and jokes. These are their prayers. Their friendship is the real miracle of Last Easter.

Written by Bryony Lavery
Directed by Doug Hughes
Cast: Veanne Cox as June; Jeffrey Carlson as Gash ; Jeffrey Scott Green as Howie; Clea Lewis as Leah; and Florencia Lozano as Joy
Set Design: Hugh Landwehr
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design: Clifton Taylor Original Music & Sound Design: Fabian Obispo
Dialoect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, without an intermission
MCC at Lucille Lortel, 121 Christopher Street,
9/15/04 to 10/23/04; opening 10/07/04
Tuesdays at 7pm; Wed through Sat at 8pm, matinees Sat & Sun at 2:30pm-- $50
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on October 6th pressperformance
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