Red Maple, by David Bunce. Directed by Margaret E. Hall. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
James Lloyd Reynolds, Elizabeth Meadows Rouse, Yvonne Perry, Oliver Wadsworth; photo: Douglas C. Liebig
"If you can't . . ."
Elizabeth Meadows Rouse, James Lloyd Reynolds; photo:Douglas C. Liebig
theREP, a.k.a. Capital Rep, has a world premiere comedy on its stage right now that may be one of the best new plays around. Written by regional actor/director David Bunce it is set in an upstate New York condo, an apartment on the 17th floor, where two couples are assembling for a dinner party. The host couple are recently estranged, she living in a nearby motel, and the two of them pledged not to tell anyone; the guest couple threatening to leave the area for Florida have a few secrets of their own. He has been in an automobile accident with some outrageous consequences. Into their midst comes a realtor ostensibly seeking an apartment to sell. But she has her own secrets which don't surface until the second act. Secrets. You have to love it.
Bunce's comedy is not a "laff-riot" but the laughs are there waiting to be revealed. The humor comes from within the characters rather than from the imposed circumstances and that makes the play all the more fascinating. We can see how difficult and dire events are converted by intelligent people into humor, pathos, sympathy, empathy and disgust. We watch good relationships sour and difficult friendships ripen. We are with this quartet all the way and we end up cheering the indefinite ending. Bunce and his director, along with a most talented company, bring us into their on-stage lives and hold us captive for two entertaining hours.
James Lloyd Reynolds; photo:Douglas C. Liebig
James Lloyd Reynolds is the accident victim to an outrageous extreme. Through his own actions and choices Robert Morton, PhD, brings about the action of the play as his own self-disgust threatens everyone's future. Reynolds is an excellent choice for the role. He is a man who seems undoubtedly pulled together and in charge of his own future. Watching him play against the image he projects is as humorously awkward as it sounds and it gives his character a pathos that is unexpected. Reynolds does a fine job as Robert and his regrets are as funny as his resolve.
Playing his wife Stephanie is a wonderfully manic actress, Elizabeth Meadows Rouse. She is easily Reynolds match in mania. She caterwauls; she caresses; she endears herself and makes herself hateful. She does it all with snap changes and alterations and when the author gives her permission to rant, she raves. Rouse is very funny in this part. She gets to play all of the extremes and she rushes from one to another without pause. I'm not sure she even takes a breath. She is exhausting.
Oliver Wadsworth; photo: Richard Lovrich
As the host couple Yvonne Perry and Oliver Wadsworth are easily the equals of Rouse and Reynolds, only with a vast difference. Both actors have been with the play since it's earliest days and have undoubtedly grown with the play in its changes. Perry's character Karen Hartley is a compulsive woman who believes in the sanctity of lives and the depths of humanity. She is both brave and challenged, the truth being her biggest fear. She is a woman who would sacrifice much for happiness but cannot bring herself to find the right course. Perry is wonderful. If all I could talk about was the opening sequence of the play as she dresses, cooks, cleans up the apartment and discourses on every subject under the sun I would still be able to praise her work. Her physical activity in the second act is even more delightful and amazing. Karen is a woman to contend with, although she hasn't quite realized that, and Perry gives the character character indeed. This may well be her finest performance to date.
Oliver Wadsworth's John Hartley is a man confused by the fates, outraged by half-truths, incapable of lying or keeping a secret. As the husband of a woman who has walked out on him, he is expressively bereft, fulfilled by his attempts to compensate and able to confess his methods whenever he has nothing else to say. He is not a babbler, but babble he does. When confronted by crisis John steps up to the plate and swings at the foul balls coming at him. It is to Wadsworth's credit that there are no false steps in this performance. For a character on the edge of a breakdown, this actor manages to keep him physically under control even when his mind is slipping into the abyss. I loved the work done here by this actor.
Oliver Wadsworth, Julia Knitel, Yvonne Perry; photo: Michael Eck
So much depends upon the "intruder", Theresa, played deliciously by Julia Knitel. Sneaking into the condo with a nefarious purpose, caught by the Hartleys, she is a delight as she makes her excuses, plays her adopted role, confuses and confounds with glee and exits before we can ever guess at her real identity or purpose. Her reappearance in Act Two gives her a whole new vision of herself. She is the character who brings the greatest surprises to the story and her own story intrudes constantly which is even more amusing than what has happened to the quartet surrounding her. Knitel is wonderful. I've only seen her once before and this role makes it clear that she is a fabulous addition to the regional theater scene.
Margaret E. Hall has kept this play moving. People are constantly jumping to their feet, moving around, carrying on in their own odd ways. It is almost farcical how people appear and disappear in this play, but not quite, for the situation that surrounds them is much more serious and complicated than any farce could accommodate. Hall has excellent help in her production. Brian Prather's condo set has that fine sense of reality to it that he often brings to a production's look and style. Rob Denton's lighting is subtle and keeps our attention focused on what Hall wants us to look at. David Rigler's costumes are perfect for their characters. Fan Zhang's sound design works well.
Fight choreographer David Girard deserves his own place in the credits here for there are fights and fights and fights and they are excellent, funny, and frightening when needed. Bravo!
I love a good new play and this is a play I'd love even if this was the fifteenth production. However, it is not. It is new. It is theREP's world premiere and one they should be proud to have birthed. The full house at the performance I saw seemed to enjoy everything about it, as I did, and so I recommend it to you without reservations - except you should make some so you don't miss "Red Maple."
Red Maple plays at theREP, 111North Pearl Street, Albany, NY, through February 17. For information and tickets go to their website at capitalrep.org or call 518-445-7469.