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Writing for Us

A CurtainUp Review

I just hate fucking writers and their fucking literary references.

Joseph Siravo and Katharine Powell
J. Siravo and K. Powell
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Two novelists hover about Abby (Katharine Powell), the main character in Smashing. One is her father, James (Joseph Siravo); the other, Jason (David Barlow), her erstwhile lover (with whom she will re-up during the course of the play). Is she haunted by the two relationships? You bet.

What's surprising about Smashing is the extent to which the proximity of two novelists infects the play itself. We all know the particular vulnerabilities of plays based on novels: characters and situations depicted in what seems like shorthand compared to the descriptiveness of prose; the seemingly unavoidable reliance on narrative; and so on. Though there is no literary provenance for Brooke Berman's play, it has many of those hallmarks of an adaptation. Much of the play is consumed with characters telling us about themselves. What's odder still is that, for all their talk, the depth of the characters is awfully shallow.

Ms. Berman, whose work has been presented at a host of impressive theaters (and will be seen at Second Stage next Spring), and whose trunk is filled with numerous awards, has a fine facility for smart and sharp comic writing. She also has some ideas that should take her beyond the play's humor. But here they remain inchoate. In the end, Smashing feels like more of a sketchy tableaux than a play, and its raw material seems more suitable for a movie. Trip Cullman's direction does well by the play's comedy, but doesn't come up with much of anything to add to its substance.

Abby grew up in Manhattan as the privileged daughter of a famous writer. (Her mother died when she was young.) The remarkably self-centered (and self-congratulatory, perhaps not without reason) James exposed her to a home life that was like living at Elaine's, and sent her to the best schools, but he never went to the trouble of getting to know her. Jason became the father's newly minted assistant when Abby was 16; part of his job was to look after her. Well, he at least looked at her: soon, they were having a love fest. Abby went off to college in due course, where she befriended a very different sort of girl, Clea (Merritt Wever), whose most salient characteristic was an obsession with Madonna. Time flies, Jason writes a best-selling book that's obviously based on his relationship with Abby and she heads to London (where he now lives) for retribution. Clea is in tow, not so much for moral support as to stalk Madonna who is, at the moment, with child. Not unexpectedly (to the audience at least), Abby ends up in the still-pining Jason's arms. For her part, Clea develops a crush on the desk clerk at their hostel, Nicky (Lucas Papaelias). When Clea heads back to America, Abby stays behind. Everyone seems to learn some obscure lesson from all of this, and Madonna gives birth.

There are some lovely scenes here to enjoy, but many of the best are untethered. Apparently, Ms. Berman wants to say something about people as icons, but it seems she doesn't know quite what it is she's trying to convey. Or else, she's just failed to make the thought coalesce.

There are some very fine performances here. Merritt Wever, wearing her youthful passions on her sleeve, is delicious as Clea; Joseph Siravo's James is beautifully resonant, mixing an Upper East Side literary pomposity with a perfectly attenuated set of emotions; Lucas Papaelias makes an endearingly goofy Nicky; and David Barlow is convincing as Jason, flying high on the wings of his novel's success but without much of a life to give him fodder for the rest of his three-book deal. Abby is a character we know pretty well, but Katharine Powell doesn't really nail her. But entertaining material and performances do not a play make, and this is not much of one.

by Brooke Berman
Directed by Trip Cullman
with David Barlow, Lucas Papaelias, Katharine Powell, Joseph Siravo, Katherine Waterston and Merritt Wever
Set Design: Erik Flatmo
Costume Design: Michael Krass
Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker
Sound Design: Scott Myers
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
A production of The Play Company
Intar 53 Theater, 508 West 53rd Street (10/11 Avs)
Telephone: (212) 868-4444
THURS - SUN @8; $15
Opening October 12, 2003, closing October 26, 2003
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 10/9/03 performance

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