The Grand Irrationality: Theater Review
The Lost Studio (runs through March 3)
Gregory Marcel, Kirsten Kollender, Mina Badie, James Donovan, Peter Elbling, Bess Meyer
This world premiere by playwright Jemma Kennedy plays richly and is full of surprises but occasionally lapses into sitcom zaniness.
Advertising creative executive Guy (Gregory Marcel), driven to land a new account for a niche soft drink targeted to women, must craft his pitch to offer mixed messages: whether to sell it on the basis of women seeking autonomy in their choices or, alternatively, as a pretext “to just give in."
Guy makes an unlikely protagonist for a comedy that examines conflicting female impulses and ideologies in the context of marketing and other social manipulations. His relationships with women mirror each variety of feminine sensibility. He woos the uptight professional American brand manager for the beverage, Nina (Kirsten Kollender), while nursing a crush on a Frenchwoman, Vivienne (Bess Meyer), who runs programs to educate women in Africa on their reproductive rights.
Meanwhile, he must deal with the severe post-partum depression of his single-mom sister Liz (Mina Badie) and his resentment over his deceased alcoholic Mom, as well coping with his critical father Murray (Pete Elbling), a leftist failed cartoonist who has moved in with him while recovering from a broken leg, and his preening, chauvinistic, condescending boss, Alex (James Donovan).
Playwright Jemma Kennedy may have laid out her discourse schematically, but it plays richly and full of surprises. She explores many stimulating ideas about women’s complicated roles in modern life, while also recognizing the companion quandaries facing men in a society still torn between impulses to progress and nostalgia. The characters intrigue, their interactions are freshly conceived. She may draw baldly on antecedents of both family drama and farce, but the spin is more than new enough.
It’s a pity, then, that this world premiere, originally developed in residency at the National Theatre Studio in London, reveals an incomplete development of its themes. There are occasional lapses into sitcom zaniness that play dissonantly against the concentrated intelligence of most of the action and dialogue, and the play’s overarching astrology metaphor, while intended to be allusive and tongue-in-cheek, gets trotted out in earnest for an unpersuasive final scene in which the resolution of the play’s conflicts resonates disappointingly against the relatively forceful arguments that had sustained it until then. The text is generally so strong that some further rigor could make truly satisfying theater.
Nevertheless, this dashing and assured production under the direction of John Pleshette manages to navigate its challenging twists of tones to entertaining and stimulating effect, the humor vested with considerable tension and the treatment of serious issues trenchant.
Marcel makes a fine leading man mixing gravitas and confusion with great drollery, while Donovan and Elbling add bite and suspense to their more familiar types. But the three women really shine here, and I can’t remember another play where all the female roles involve terrific raging speeches replete with bulging neck veins, usually a male province. Meyer’s somewhat fantastical steely gamine with a lazy eye updates Audrey Hepburn into the contemporary age, Kollender makes a convincingly conflicted amoral corporate striver, and Badie’s mad mother skirts exaggeration to achieve a frightening instability.