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A CurtainUp Review
Lobster Alice

My work will become famous for all time, and your efforts, reductive and simplistic, will fade from the American memory.--- Salvador Dali

In her wildly imaginative but also flawed new play, Lobster Alice, Kira Obolensky has Salvador Dali (David Patrick Kelly) direct his verbal slings and arrows at John Finch (Reg Rogers), a full-time animator at the Walt Disney's animation studio in 1946. The very buttoned-down Finch has been assigned to oversee Dali's short term assignment of animating the song "Destino." His response to the surrealist's ""anything is possible" concept of art is a cautionary "within reason."

Dali, the extravagantly self-confident painter who welcomed each day, if only to find out "what Dali would be doing," is the Mad Hatter who stirs the simmering dreams of Finch and his secretary Alice Horowitz (Jessica Hecht). The fact that she's named Alice and that Finch's own animation project is Alice In Wonderland is strictly intentional since Dali's surreal dreamscapes and Alice's adventures down the rabbit hole are all part of this blend of office romance and scrutiny of the Disneyfied and Dali-dare-all imagination.

Dali actually was hired to animate "Destino" in hopes of repeating the success of Fantasia. This bit of Hollywood history, like the song's alternate title ("You Tempt Me"), lured the playwright into re-imagining Dali's venture into Disney's world. Besides acting as foils for the unconventional but fact-inspired Dali character, the strictly invented Horowitz and Finch root Ms. Obolensky's surreal comedy in a fairly standard, Disney-worthy boy-meets-girl romance. Everything that happens, real and surreal, is firmly grounded in John Finch's Burbank studio and structured around the specific time frame of a series of Monday morning meetings during which Dali is to confer with Finch about the progress of his assignment.

The non-Disneyfied side of Ms. Obolensky's imagination that attracted her to Dali works hard to freshen the predictable elements lurking beneath her surreal conceit. Since Dali was a larger than life personality who would have fit right into Carroll's Wonderland she makes Finch's innocuous incubator of mass market art a moat between Dali's dreams and Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, pulling Alice Horowitz and John Finch into six weeks of madcap surprises.

Jessica Hecht, whom I've come to put in the category of actors who never disappoint, is a breezy, touching and lovely Alice. When we first meet her she is the perfect 1940s secretary, weaving bits of personal history into a telephone order of items ranging from conventional art materials to a box of worms, remnants of an old Chevrolet, a gold fingernail file and "silence."" When things turn topsy-turvy, she sports lobster claws with the same casual aplomb as her neat pompadour. She is superb in a dream à trois scene that starts out realistically enough with Finch, like Mike Nichols in a famous Nichols-May date skit, mustering up enough nerve to embrace her, only to be preempted by her old boyfriend (Derek Richardson--a ghost in caterpillar costume). She is the center holding together this migration from her sexual dream (nightmare?) into Dali's.

Reg Rogers is her solid match as the uptight Finch whose devotion to success à la Disney's standards make loving a Jewish girl downright dangerous. Dali's unwillingness to fit himself into his literally and figuratively myopic vision at one point becomes enraged enough to toss him out the window (without much luck-- after vanishing in a puff of smoke Dali blithely re-enters through a side door). Rogers lets Finch show just enough but not too much change to make you believe that he and Alice might have a future together even though she's gained far more insight as per her quote from Carroll's Alice -- "you have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair."

The excellence of Hecht's and Rogers' performances, alas, also contain the seeds of the flaws mentioned in my opening sentence. Dali, as characterized by the playwright and David Patrick Kelly, lacks the impressive flair of the real Dali (not to mention height and twirling moustache). Consequently he is more carricature than free-spirited, surrealist and, like so many modern movies, the play's surrealism is more a triumph of special effects than incisive content.

The contribution of the design team is nothing short of spectacular. With the aid of Jan Hartley's colorful projections and Frances Aronson's brilliant lighting, set designer Neil Patel has managed to turn the basic studio set into an eye-popping Dalian landscape -- the couch which symbolizes Alice's dreams eventually sports a heart-shaped back, grasses pop out of the wooden floor, the very symbolic clock melts, a corkboard becomes a fiery rabbit hole. I'd love to be able to see the shifting scenery in slow motion, especially the changing projections as Dali describes his work. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes are also highly inventive. Besides such showy items as Derek Richardson's already mentioned caterpillar costume there are Ms. Hecht's delectable outfits -- authentically 1940s from the ankle strap high heels to the enchanting itty bitty hats. Not to be overlooked is David Van Tieghem's as ever impressive sound design which includes original music.

Even though Lobster Alice doesn't quite succeed in merging fact and fiction into a play of truly memorable originality, and director Maria Mileaf's at times lapses into a too largo tempo, it's worth seeing. Like several other recent plays by emerging American playwrights, (all Off-Broadway), it shows that the economic dictates of small casts are not contradictory to fully realized productions.

A postscript about Salvador Dali. The artist while not completely forgotten failed to sustain his star status, though there's been renewed interest in his work in recent years. In addition to being a major character in this Playwrights Horizon production, he is also the subject of a play by Jose Rivera, References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot which is scheduled for a world premiere at South Coast Rep later this month.

Written by Kira Obolensky
Directed by Maria Mileaf

With: Jessica Hecht, Reg Rogers, Derek Richardson, David Patrick Kelly
Set Design: Neil Patel
Lighting Design: Frances Aronson
Costume Design:Ann Hould-Ward
Original Music and Sound Design: David Van Tieghem
Projections: Jan Hartley
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission
Playwrights Horizons' Anne G. Wilder Theater, 416 W. 42dn St. (9th/10th Avs), 279-4200
12/17/99-1/23/2000; opening 1/09/2000
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 1/06/2000 performance

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