'About Alice': Theater Review

Courtesy of Henry Grossman
Carrie Paff and Jeffrey Bean in 'About Alice'
A droll and moving theatrical love letter.
2/3/2019

Author-humorist Calvin Trillin adapts his best-selling 2006 memoir about his relationship with his late wife in this off-Broadway world premiere.

If you've seen author and humorist Calvin Trillin in one of his many television appearances over the years, you know he doesn't cut a dashing figure. Balding and unprepossessing, he speaks in a flat monotone; attempting to discern the minutest change in his facial expression is a fruitless task. And yet, as played by actor Jeffrey Bean in Trillin's new play based on his memoir About Alice, he's the most romantic figure currently to be seen on a New York stage.

Published in 2006, the memoir is an unabashed love letter from Trillin to his wife, who passed away six years earlier. She had often been a prominent figure in his comic writings, but this book about their 36-year marriage inevitably was a much more emotive affair. Alice was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1976 but survived despite daunting odds. She lived another 25 years, dying not from the disease but rather from the damage to her heart caused by the extensive radiation treatments she had endured years earlier.

It would be easy to assume that the piece, representing Trillin's first full-length play (he's performed occasional one-man shows), would be a maudlin affair. Far from it. Instead, it's a humorous, sweetly touching account of the couple's relationship that revolves around one main theme: Trillin really, really adored his wife, who he admits was way out of his league. He ascribes his having managed to get her to fall in love with him as "pure dumb luck."

Embodying such a seemingly perfect woman, not to mention one who, according to Trillin, was widely renowned for her beauty, is a daunting assignment. Fortunately, Carrie Paff is up to the task, infusing her portrayal with elegance and charm to spare. If her too-frequent costume changes make the character seem more like a fashion model than, as the show's program describes her, an "educator, author, film producer, activist and longtime muse of her husband," Peff is so irresistible that not falling in love with her doesn't seem an option. Bean is equally terrific, delivering Trillin's droll one-liners in perfect deadpan fashion and allowing just enough emotion to seep into his controlled performance.  

Commissioned by Theatre for a New Audience, About Alice was originally conceived as a one-person play, a la David Hare's adaptation of another memoir about mourning, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. Trillin resisted that idea, and it turned out to be a wise move. It works beautifully as a two-character piece, because it allows Alice to represent herself. Trillin informs us in an author's note that nearly all the words spoken by the character onstage are taken from Alice's essays and letters, essentially making her the play's co-author.

She turns out to have been as witty as her husband. Recalling their first meeting at a party, Alice tells him, "I thought you were very funny. I thought you'd be an interesting person to have to dinner after my boyfriend and I were married." Twisting the comic knife a little further, she adds, "You have never again been as funny as you were that night." Later, faced with the prospect of her looming mortality, Alice counsels her sorrowful husband, "You should find a new wife and try to be happy. Just don't sleep with her."

The play also includes a moving excerpt from a letter she wrote to a friend's 12-year-old boy who was battling the same kind of cancer she had suffered from years earlier. The letter, along with the young boy's reply, was later published as an illustrated children's book.

Despite its brief 75-minute running time, the piece wanders at times. Not every segment proves rewarding, such as the lengthy anecdotes involving an errant car luggage rack and Alice's negotiations with a home contractor. But despite its occasional tedious patches, the play, staged in rewardingly simple fashion by Leonard Foglia, proves deeply affecting. It's a sort of theatrical Taj Mahal, as only this perpetually understated writer could have conceived it.

Venue: Polonsky Shakespeare Center, New York
Cast: Jeffrey Bean, Carrie Paff
Playwright: Calvin Trillin
Director: Leonard Foglia
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: David C. Woolard
Lighting designer: Russell H. Champa
Sound designer: Joshua Schmidt
Projection designer: Elaine J. McCarthy
Presented by Theatre for a New Audience