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A CurtainUp Review
Toys In the Attic

I was kind of, well kind of broken. I know it. It's bad for a man to feel gone— Julian reflecting on his years of failure to bring home a fortune to his sisters, and instead being bailed out with money from their meager earnings in unrewarding jobs.

From left to right: Ivy Vahanian as Lily Berniers, Rachel Botchan as Carrie Berniers, Robin Leslie Brown as Anna Berniers, and Sean McNall as Julian Berniers (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Looking for an old-fashioned but still timely and absorbing drama, beautifully acted and sensitively staged? You could do a lot worse than buying a ticket for the Pearl Theatre's revival of Lillian Hellman's last original play, Toys in the Attic (1959). Austin Pendleton, who appeared in a 1967 revival of The Little Foxes and then directed another revival fourteen years later, is firmly at the helm of this production. Instead of attempting to update it with newfangled ideas he relies on the play's enduring vitality and his actors to bring out all the nuances of the characters they play.

For many theater goers under a certain age the name Lillian Hellman conjures up a well-known, often notorious celebrity, several best-selling memoirs (An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento & Scoundrel Time) and perhaps her most famous play, The Little Foxes, written when she was only twenty-nine — five years younger than the charming but failure-prone Julian Berniers of Toys in the Attic. Like the Hubbards of The LittleFoxes, the Berniers of Toys in the Attic (Julian and the adoring older sisters Anna and Carrie to whose apron strings his financial misadventures bind him) depict a group of memorable dysfunctionals torn asunder by destructive love and money. Their pipe dreams and unacknowledged passions unravel in just a couple of sweltering summer days in New Orleans long before air conditioning and the Katrina disaster.

Despite its reliance on the convenient device of an overheard secret to move things towards an inevitably devastating and t melodramatic climax, those characters and the words they speak are sharp enough for good actors to bring Toys in the Attic to vivid life. I never saw the star-studded premiere (Maureen Stapleton Jason Robards Jr. and Irene Worth) which won a Tony for Best Play, nor the movie adaptation with Dean Martin, Geraldine Page, Wendy Hiller and Gene Tierney as the Berniers. CurtainUp has, however, had a chance to see how good acting and direction more than big box office casting can serve this play well — Laura Hitchcock at a 2002 Los Angeles production; I at a Berkshire Theatre Festival revival six summers ago, and now, this lovely productionl at the Pearl.

In the Pearl's always informative Playgoers' Supplement Austin Pendleton calls Toys. . . Hellman's most personal play; rightly so, given that its plot and character link to her New Orleans childhood, memories of her father's adoring sisters and her own stormy love affair with Dashiell Hammett. Pendleton attributes the play's fierce drive and originality to the fact that "the collective of the different unconsciousnesses of the play becomes [and this is an unfortunate image to use since the play is set in New Orleans] like a hurricane." Yet the image fits the way he moves this fine cast through the two sweltering summer days at a pace that matches the slow tempo of the Berniers sisters' lives but bursts into a storm of painful disappointments, revelations and cruel acts prompted by the sudden retun of their beloved younger brother and his childlike bride Lily.

With two detailed reviews of productions that also allowed the play to stand on its merits without any drastic diddling (except for a skipped intermission and allowing Lily's aloof and rich mother, Albertine Prine and her African-American lover Henry Simpson to embrace,) I'll rely on those earlier reviews (linked below) to fill you in on the plot and character details. While Anna and Carrie's dreams of leaving their dreary jobs and the "house nobody every liked and nobody ever will" for an extended trip to Europe still brings to mind Chekhov's Moscow fixated sisters, this time around I was struck even more by the shadow of another New Orleans playwright, Tennessee Williams. This is especially true of Pearl newcomer Ivy Vahanian's protrayal of Lily, the dangerously fragile sexpot.

Robin Leslie Brown, an actress who often wins praise in this company for her comedic talents, proves herself just as capable of breaking your heart, especially during her desperate final attempt to actually go to Europe, declaring "I am a woman who has no place to go, but I'm going, and after a while I will ask myself why I took my mother's two children to be my own." Rachel Botchan' is equally impressive as the at first more ebullient Carrie, whose unacknowledged feelings for her brother trigger the insecure Lily to betray the husband she adores. Sean McNall is perhaps a tad too mannered at first as the ne'er do well Julian, but as the play progresses he inhabits his role with more naturalness and depth, and will probably do so all the way through during the course of the run.

One of the play's most intriguing characters, the wealthy and unconventional Albertine Prine, also turns out to be a most intriguingly understated performance by Joanne Camp. Robert Colston is somewhat too understated as Mrs. Prine's African-American lover but he does convey the man's strength and dignity.

Set designer Harry Feiner has put the Pearl's wide stage to good use to create a realistically detailed living room with a small garden area at one side. The set is evocatively lit by Stephen Petrilli and Barbara A. Bell's vintage costumes add authenticity.

As I said in my review of the Berkshire Theatre Festival revival of this play, that old devil, MONEY, while not a character in this character driven play, overarches everything. It is the toy in this attic that stirs unspoken rancors and truths.

The Pearl season will continue with two other twentieth century plays, William Saroyan's The Cave Dwellers (1957) from 2/23/07 to 4/08/07, and S. N. Behrman's Biography (1932). Quite a season.

Toys in the Attic-Los Angeles 2002
Toys in the Attic-Berkshire Theatre Festival 2000
Little Foxes -London 2002
Little Foxes -Lincoln Center 1997
Joan Mellen's dual biography, Hellman and Hammett
Next up at the Pearl two more 20th Century plays: William Saroyan's The Cave Dwellers (Feb 23 -April 8) and S. N. Behrman's Biography (Apil 11-May 20). Quite a season.

Toys In the Attic
By Lillian Hellman
Directed by Austin Pendleton.
Cast: Resident Acting Company members Rachel Botchan (Carrie Berniers) , Robin Leslie Brown (Anna Berniers), Joanne Camp (Albertine Prine), and Sean McNall (Julian Berniers); and guest actors Robert Colston (Henry) , RJ Foster (Mover, Gus Understudy), Jon Froehlich (Mover 1, Julian Understudy), Marcus Naylor (Gus) , Ivy Vahanian (Lily) and William White (Taxi Driver, Mover 2, Henry Understudy)
Scenic Design : Harry Feiner
Lighting Design: Stephen Petrilli
Sound Design: Sara Bader
Costume Design: Barbara A. Bell
Dialect Design: Amy Stoller
The Pearl Theatre,80 St. Marks Place (at 1st Avenue), 212/ 598-9802,
From 1/05/07 to 2/18/07; opening 1/14/06.
Tuesday 7pm; Wednesday 2pm; Thursday 8pm; Saturday 2pm; Tickets: $25 All Previews; $50 Friday 8pm; Saturday 8pm; Sunday 2pm; Youth and Senior Tickets $20 weekdays and $25 weekends; Rush Tickets for $10 for Thursday 8pm performances 15 minutes prior to curtain.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on January 11th press preview
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