Sunday, January 13, 2008

Perfecting Codependence

"Come Back, Little Sheba" presented by the Manhattan Theater Club at the Biltmore Theatre, January 13, 2008

William Inge's classic play of dysfunction and longing returns for its first Broadway revival under the sensitive direction of Michael Pressman. He has assembled an admirable cast. The story centers around Lola (S. Epatha Merkerson), a faded beauty married and childless slogging into middle age. She longs for happier times and her dog Sheba who ran away sometime ago. Her sometime-recovering-alcoholic husband Doc (Kevin Anderson) longs for the youthful freedom he never had, as well as Marie (Zoe Kazan), the college student who boards with them.

Ms. Merkerson braves the challenge to take on a role so closely associated with the inimitable Shirley Booth who originated the role of Lola on stage and on film winning both a Tony and an Oscar for her portrayal. I've never seen the film, but I can easily imagine the power Ms. Booth brought to that performance. Ms. Merkerson's Lola is a woman lost in her love for a man who can't raise himself to what he wants to be, and lost after the death of their child during childbirth. She is prompted to action by Marie, who serves as something of a surrogate child. Yet she remains child-like and starved for companionship, striking up conversations with the postman and milkman, and developing an odd friendship with her neighbor.

Mr. Anderson's Doc is the strongest characterization of the cast. His desire for Marie torments him more than the bottle of bourbon in the pantry. After being pushed over the edge, his drunken violent rage was particularly visceral.

Ms. Kazan continues to establish herself as one of the brightest stage talents in New York. Her Marie is practical and forward-thinking, juggling romance with two boys, school athlete and classmate Turk (the delectably athletic Brian Smith) and her long distance boyfriend Bruce (Chad Hoeppner) who shows up with a ring and sweeps her off late in Act II.

I made comparisons to Mr. Inge's work in my comments on "August: Osage County" which seem all the more relevant after seeing tonight's play. I also noticed some striking comparisons to characters in Mr. Inge's "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," faded beauties discovering themselves stuck in middle age with undependable men who require their support instead of being the support they thought they had chosen.

James Noone's semi-skeletal set functions relatively well, though also reminiscent of the set for "August: Osage County." Must be something about Midwestern dysfunction that inspires such a design. I did find the set a bit ineffective with some action taking place upstage left blocked by the lace curtains surrounding the front door for those of on the right side of the audience. Jane Cox's lighting added the appropriate level of intimacy.

Mr. Pressman is to be commended for his work here. Pace and intensity provide a nice flow.

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