Theater Reviews

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Biltmore Theatre, New York
Through March 16

Playwright William Inge's reputation has not weathered nearly as well as such contemporaries as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, and the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of "Come Back, Little Sheba" is not likely to change the situation.

Revived much less often than the superior "Bus Stop" and "Picnic" -- its last major New York production was nearly a quarter-century ago -- "Sheba" now registers as one of the writer's most heavy-handed, painfully obvious works.

In an intriguing example of color-blind casting, S. Epatha Merkerson ("Law & Order") stars as Lola, the former high school beauty queen now reduced to being a blousy housewife. Kevin Anderson plays her husband, Doc, an alcoholic chiropractor whose one-year sobriety is obviously hanging by a thread.

The marriage is clearly running on fumes. The desperately lonely Lola is reduced to striking up conversations with whichever delivery people happen to come along. And Doc mainly seems to be pining for their boarder, Marie (Zoe Kazan), a comely young college student juggling the attentions of a distant fiance (Chad Hoeppner) and Turk (Brian J. Smith), the jock student with whom she's fooling around.

Not only is the playwright's brand of naturalism out of style, but even more so is his bludgeoning use of symbolism. From the titular runaway pooch that represents Lola's faded youth and beauty to the phallic javelin that Marie's boyfriend constantly describes wielding, "Sheba" is not exactly subtle in its implications. With the constant references to Doc's former drinking, it's not hard to figure out that by play's end he'll have fallen off the wagon.

Despite all this, the play still has its affecting moments, thanks to Inge's clear empathy for his troubled characters. These aspects are only partly realized in this awkwardly cast revival directed by Michael Pressman.

Merkerson, in the role so famously played onstage and onscreen by Shirley Booth (winning an Oscar in the process), underplays with a sad dignity that doesn't quite convey Lola's ridiculousness. Anderson, meanwhile, seems far too young and vital to be the sad, middle-age Doc, though he's genuinely frightening in his second-act drunken scene.

Kazan (granddaughter of Elia), who has been doing impressive work on the New York stage this season, nicely captures Marie's flighty self-absorption, and the large supporting cast are highly convincing in their period mannerisms. But despite the strenuous efforts of all concerned, this "Sheba" might not have been worth bringing back.

COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA
Presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club
Credits:
Playwright: William Inge
Director: Michael Pressman
Set designer: James Noone
Costume designer: Jennifer von Mayrhauser
Lighting designer: Jane Cox
Sound designer: Obadiah Eves
Original music: Peter Golub
Cast:
Doc: Kevin Anderson
Marie: Zoe Kazan
Lola: S. Epatha Merkerson
Turk: Brian J. Smith
Postman: Lyle Kanouse
Mrs. Coffman: Brenda Wehle
Milkman: Matthew J. Williamson
Messenger: Daniel Damon Joyce
Bruce: Chad Hoeppner
Ed: Keith Randolph Smith
Elmo: Joseph Adams
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