Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Review - Stranger Than Fiction: Three Plays Based on Fact (Turtle Shell Productions)

Stage Buzz Review by Byrne Harrison

Stranger Than Fiction offers an evening of short plays by playwright Norman Beim, all based (more or less) in fact. While the evening doesn’t always show Beim’s well-written plays in their best light, the good outweighs the bad.

The first short play is the endearing A Love Story, an epistolary tale of a platonic love shared by Frieda (Rachel Eve Moses), a young Polish girl, and Mr. Fischel (Christopher Henney), the man who cared for her and her family during World War I. Considering that the action of the play consists of nothing more than two people sitting at writing desks writing letters, the play is remarkably engaging. This is due in large part to the charming Moses, whose expressive face and voice create a totally believable and lovable character. Henney, as the proper storekeeper who loves the young Frieda like a daughter, has a shy awkwardness that is endearing.

The second play of the evening, A Queen’s Revenge, is the weakest of the three. This over-the-top story of John (Henney), an aging gay man whose younger lover, Jack (Matthew Schmidt), leaves him for Jill (Moses) feels incomplete. The climax, a cruel and vindictive punishment straight out of urban legend that John visits upon the young lovers, occurs in the play’s final moment. This abrupt ending leaves all the interesting stuff (how Jack and Jill react to a terrible violation, what they do to John, etc.) unexplored.

Another problem in this play was Henney’s portrayal of John. As the title of the play suggests, John should be a queen: flamboyant, witty, and cruel. Instead, Henney plays him as a mild, gay gentleman, somewhat arch, but ultimately harmless. As a result, the revenge seems out of character, and worse, his moderate interpretation doesn’t give his fellow actors much to react to in the moments that are supposed to be intense and dramatic.

The final play, The Deserter, offers a fascinating look into the last moments of Private Eddie Slovik, the only American soldier executed for desertion in World War II. Beim imagines a priest (Henney) taking confession from the soon-to-die Private (Ian Campbell Dunn). Along the way, the Private voices his opposition to war and how it conflicts with his Christian faith, while the Father shrugs off his concerns and arguments with justifications that are decidedly more Army than Vatican. While this play would be stronger if Henney were more expressive as the priest, Dunn’s portrayal of the unsure Private Slovik makes this a moving piece of theatre.

As would be expected from an evening with three plays, the sets are spare and easily changed. That being said, the technical team (John W. Cooper, Maya Animayka, Lisa Weinshrott, Michael L. Kimmel and Sarah Mariece) do much with little. The sets, lighting and sound enhance each of the plays nicely.

If you are a fan of the prolific Norman Beim, Stranger Than Fiction is not to be missed. And despite the problems with the second play, The Love Story and The Deserter make this a production worth attending.

Written by Norman Beim
Directed by Norman Beim
Turtle Shell Productions
300 W. 43rd St., 4th Floor