Thursday, October 18, 2012

“Lovers” - Two interesting tales of love and loss

By Judd Hollander

The Actors Company Theatre opens its 20th season with a pair of one-act works by Brian Friel about life, love, and second chances. Presented under the umbrella title of Lovers and first seen in America in 1968, the two plays, called Winners and Losers respectively, showcase people on the threshold of change and what happens when they take that step, or conversely, decide not to do so.

Winners, the longer of the two stories, takes place in 1968 Ireland with flashbacks to a faithful afternoon in the lives of two teenage lovers. 17 year old Mag (Justine Salata) and 17 and a half year old Joe (Cameron Scoggins). The two are about to be married as Mag is pregnant with Joe's child.

As Mag and Joe sit atop a hill above their town to study for their final exams, while engaging in cross-conversations, it quickly becomes obvious the couple is a study in contrasts. Joe is the more studious and serious of the duo, while Mag is more flighty and fancy-free, often driving her husband-to-be to distraction. Both also have issues they're struggling to deal with. Joe, who once had dreams of going on to college and becoming a math teacher, feels Mag trapped him into marriage; while Mag is excited about becoming a wife and mother, but is completely overwhelmed with the responsibilities that come along with that situation. That Mag and Joe love each other is without question, but both are feeling the ever-increasing weight of being forced to become adults long before they're ready.

As Mag and Joe's story plays out, their tale is interspersed with comments from a Man (James Riordan) and Woman (Kati Brazda), news commentators both, recounting what happened to Mag and Joe on the day depicted, piecing together clues as to their movements, whereabouts and final destination. Speaking without bias and with an air of authority, these comments are a calming counterbalance to the actions of Mag and Joe, who are busy trying to celebrate life and all the possibilities it has to offer. At least before the limitations of reality start to set in.

Performances by the actors are all strong, though the story/mystery is what draws the audience in. Information about the participants is given out in dribs and drabs, with it coming across perhaps too slow at points, though it definitely succeeds in maintaining interest. It would have nice however, if there were one or two lines tossed in to help tie things up a bit better, as a few issues are left hanging, though not enough to mar the emotional impact of the tale.

Next up is Losers. Set in the same time and place as Winners, this second work looks at things from the other side of the coin from previous play. Namely, what comes after happily ever after? Andy (Riordan) a forty-something gentleman, is courting Hanna (Brazda), a woman approximately the same age. The two, after having spent much of their lives alone, finally find someone with whom they can spend their life. However Hanna lives with her aged and bed-ridden mother, one Mrs. Wilson, played expertly to the comic hilt by Nora Chester, who uses a combination of infirmity and guilt to keep her daughter close by. As such, Andy and Hanna find they have to be rather inventive in order to be able to secure some quality alone time. All of which leads to hilarious results, such as the couple spouting poetry when they want to fool around in Hanna's living room, so as not to arouse her mom's suspicions when she listens to the conversations from her nearby bedroom. All works well until Hanna finds herself forced to choose between Andy and her mother; with Andy, having his own plans for himself and hew new bride, feeling somewhat left out in the cold.

Depending just as much on the comical moments as it does on the narrative, Andy recounting the story which is played out via flashback, the four member cast pulls out all the stops, playing their roles perfectly straight for maximum effect. Riordan and Brazda have wonderful chemistry together, Riordan getting to do a hilarious drunk sequence while Brazda has great fun as the long suffering daughter trying to find a little happiness wherever she can. Chester plays a pious and somewhat scheming woman perfectly, using her words and gestures to twist the knife of sarcasm and blade of guilt deeper into Andy and Hanna every time they're with her. In a way, it could be said that Andy and Hanna suffer the "death of a thousand cuts" from Mrs. Wilson's machinations. Cynthia Darlow is funny as Cissy, Mrs. Wilson's long-time friend and religious companion. As with Winners, Losers is a story about choices in life: the ones that you make and ones you find thrust upon you. Though in all cases presented here, once the various decisions have been made, there is no turning back from them or their resulting effects.

If there's a complaint with Losers, it's that the playwright uses too much narrative talk, telling, rather than showing what went on between the characters. This is especially true with a speech Andy gives after he and Hanna have become husband and wife, the monologue serving as an information bridge leading into the next sequence in the play.

Also linking the two pieces together is the fact that both works present situations the audience can relate to and understand, thus allowing them to emphasize with the characters in each piece. Both of the shows could, in actuality, have been expanded into full-length pieces, were the author so inclined. As noted in the press notes, the shows are often preformed separately as stand-alone plays, though one can see the definite connections when the two are done together.

Drew Barr does a nice job with the direction, especially when it comes to the various scenes involving physical activity. The show does run a little long and could benefit from some cutting or quickening of pacing, especially in act one, but all in all, Lovers offers a very involving and ironic twist (particularly when taking into account the titles of the individual works) on the subjects of love, commitment and the accompanying emotional joys and baggage.

The sets by Brett J. Banakis in each piece are nicely appropriate, both sparse and at the same time filing. Lighting by Mary Louise Geiger works well, as do the costumes by Kim Krumm Sorenson.


Featuring: James Riordan (Man), Kati Brazda (Woman), Justine Salata (Mag), Cameron Scoggins (Joe)

Featuring: James Riordan (Andy), Kati Brazda (Hanna), Cynthia Darlow (Cissy), Nora Chester (Mrs. Wilson)

Presented by The Actors Company Theatre
Written by: Brian Friel
Directed by Drew Barr
Scenic Design: Brett J. Banakis
Sound Design & Original Music: Daniel Kluger
Costume Design: Kim Krum Sorenson
Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger
Wig Design: Robert Charles Vallance
Props: Lauren Madden
Dialect Coach: Susan Cameron
Production Stage Manager: Michael Friedlander
Assistant Stage Manger: Alex Mark
Dramaturge: Ethan Joseph
Casting: Kelly Gillespie
Press & Publicity: Richard Hillman
TACT General Manager: Cathy Bencivenga

Beckett Theatre
Theatre Row Studios
410 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or
Running Time: 2 Hours, 10 Minutes - with one intermission
Closes: October 20, 2012

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