Sunday, January 16, 2011


What do you do when, at thirty-something, you hate your job, your romantic life is nil and, in general, your life, as one character so plainly puts it, sucks?

If you are a character in Alexander Dinelaris’ comedic drama, Still Life, currently on the boards at Alliance Theatre Company at the Union County Performing Arts Center, you make some major changes, many of which will completely baffle people who think they know you well, but all of which will change your life. Will the changes be for the better? Well, you’ll have to go see the play to find out for yourself.

Michael J. Driscoll once again flexes his solid directorial chops to keep this rather rambling, diffuse play humming along through a veritable kaleidoscope of scene changes. The very attractive and talented cast does a stellar job plumbing the vicissitudes of modern life as lived by these materialistic, consumer- and competition-based times.

110A (4)The two leads, Jeff and Carrie Ann, played beautifully and convincingly by Matt McCarthy and Elissa Strell, respectively, meet “cute” at an exhibit of her photographs, pictures of dead animals, no less! Jeff is drawn to them because he feels that Carrie Ann has bestowed dignity on these creatures and in so doing has made death less frightening. She, on the other hand, is still reeling from the death of her beloved father—a gifted photographer himself—just three months before, so much so that she seems to be unable to resume her career and instead opts for a teaching position at a university, a job she hates and one she is not very good at performing. He is just as unhappy in his job as a brand analyst, which involves finding ways to get the public to purchase items that might not even be good for them (“Country Fried Chicken: Pleasure Revenge” is his bright idea) but will surely profit the manufacturer.

McCarthy is winning as a young man who feels his life has reached a dead end and wants to change it. He’s tentative toward Carrie Ann without appearing wimpy, and he really does seem to have a principled backbone that recoils at what he’s called upon to do at the ad agency. Elissa Strell matches him skill for skill. With her adorable dimples and fresh luminosity, she lights up the stage and makes us fall in love with her as well. Best of all, the chemistry between the two protagonists is palpable and believable.

109DWe watch this sweet romance unfold (they don’t jump into bed on the first date and even wind up arguing about the death of feminism) slowly, against a backdrop of Jeff’s repulsive boss Terry, an amoral individual whose profane dialogue gives David Mamet a run for his money. Every time Mike Baabb as Terry speaks, you want to take a shower afterwards, he’s that icky. Carrie Ann is prodded about her failure to take photos by her mentor, Dr Joanne Reid, her father’s former lover, played with brusque and rather cold efficiency by Cody Dalton. We sure get the feeling that this woman is more concerned about her own reputation as it will be affected by Carrie Ann’s “retirement” from the art scene.

203CAble support is provided by Chess Lankford as Jeff’s doctor friend Sean, who goes where no doctor should go by talking to Jeff about his physical condition even though he’s not Jeff’s doctor. His face is a mirror of compassion as he helplessly watches his buddy suffer (no spoiler here). Katie Hayes and Kell Maizenaski portray a variety of women quite well, making each one different from the others. And finally, Howard Fischer is fine as Theo, Carrie Ann’s deceased father, alternately querulous and lucid, and providing a bit of mystery to their relationship that unfortunately never gets resolved.

Tom Rowe’s lighting is essential to a play with a myriad of scene changes, all of which proceed quickly, and Lilli Marques’ costumes are terrifically appropriate to the character and the situation.

My only complaint is that the script is too lengthy and rather repetitive. The scene where Sean and Jeff argue with Mary (Sean’s wife) and Carrie Ann about the future (and past) of feminism is gratuitous and interminable. And several threads, most notably one about just who took the photos Carrie Ann has claimed as hers, go nowhere. In fact, that conundrum reminded me of the situation between the father and daughter in Proof. That said, the acting is stellar and makes the production worthwhile to see. But you’d better hurry: it ends January 29.

Still Life will be performed at the Studio Theatre, upstairs at the Union County Performing Arts Center, 1601 Irving Street, Rahway, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM. Friday, January 21, includes a talk-back and wine and cheese reception. For information and tickets, call the box office at 732.499.8226 or visit online at