Thursday, March 5, 2015

REVIEW: COMIC PLAY PREMIERES ON CENTENARY STAGE

Sheila and OreoBy Sheila Abrams

You’ve probably met Blossom and Len Gold. Or people very much like them. The title pair in Joni Fritz’s thought-provoking comedy is an octogenarian couple at a transitional time in their lives. They no longer have all their marbles, you might say. But in the course of the play, they have moments of profound insight.

In the Car With Blossom and Len was originally part of the Centenary Stage Company’s prestigious Woman Playwrights Series in 2014. It ultimately won the Susan Glaspell Award, which involves a fully-staged production.

The title is a little misleading. Some moments are set in a car, with either Blossom, Len, or both of them going somewhere with their daughter, Holly, in the driver’s seat. But most of it is set in the couple’s nicely appointed but slightly dated house.

The play is as much about Holly and her sister Fern as it is about their parents. Or to be more accurate, it’s about the relationships among them all, and the family dynamics at work.

Holly, somewhere in her early fifties, has devoted herself to caring for her parents, which is becoming more and more of a problem. How she has taken this long to discover that their finances are a wreck is puzzling. But the play opens in the Golds’ house, as Holly uncovers the fact that her folks are broke.

Len, a chemical engineer, owns a testing lab. Because the lab has not made any money for quite a while (the reason for which eventually becomes clear), Len has not only not paid any bills. He hasn’t opened them. As Holly uncovers stacks of bills, both business and personal, she actually requires a laundry basket to hold them all.

The nicest guy you can imagine, Len has been paying his employees with his and Blossom’s Social Security and pension income. Concluding that her parents are incapable of taking care of themselves, Holly calls in a reinforcement, in the form of her sister, Fern.

Unlike artsy Holly (“a word person,” Blossom explains), Fern is a numbers person. An attorney and a success in life, unlike Holly, she goes into take-charge mode. Before long, inevitably, she is butting heads with her father. He may not be at the top of his game, but he is far away from the point where he’s willing to let his hard-edged, bossy daughter call the shots.

Blossom is a little less connected with reality than Len and also a little less assertive. Wispy and fragile, she is deeply attached to her wardrobe of old business clothes which reside in a closet in the basement. She worries about what will become of these long-unworn clothes after she is gone, at one point suggesting that they be stuffed into her coffin and buried with her.

Occasionally, the two elders lapse into something of a stereotype. Len, for example, shouting that he can’t hear what people are saying, turns out not to have his hearing aid in place. On the other hand, Fritz has written a gorgeous moment in which Len, talking about his childhood passion for chemistry, explains a chemical reaction, crystallization, to Holly. Only a scientist would perceive such beauty as Len describes.

If the elders sometimes seem stereotypical, the daughters do as well. Holly is so self-sacrificing that you want to send her to a therapist ASAP. And the tough Fern is amazingly annoying, even when she is right.

There is one character who is not a family member: Susan Anderson. She is a sort of expert (a social worker, perhaps) who job it is to connect seniors with services that are available to them. Full of cloying sweetness and light, she is unprepared for and therefore unnerved by Len’s angry response.

Perhaps the way things turn out is a little unconvincing. But it seemed to please the audience at the performance I attended. Most of them were themselves contemporaries of Blossom and Len, but I would bet that almost all of them were clearer-minded than the fictional couple.

Performances were nicely realized, with Peter Levine a standout as Len. Emily Jon Mitchell gave Blossom a delicacy that was endearing, though we wondered if she had ever cared as much for her daughters as she did for her wardrobe.

Patricia Randell and Kathleen M. Darcy were as sharply different from each other as sisters can be, a Yin and Yang of family relationships. And last but definitely not least, Maria Brodeur was delightful as Susan Anderson, who just wants to do the right thing.

As we have come to expect at Centenary, the set design, by Bob Phillips, was absolutely beautiful. Lynne Taylor-Corbett directed the production.