Thursday, April 05, 2007

As I Speak of This, I'm Trying to be Kind

"Tea & Sympathy" presented by Keen Company at the Clurman Theatre, Theatre Row, April 3, 2007

I have a certain fondness for "T&S" because one of the first acting scenes I was assigned in high school was from this play.

I was pleased at how well Robert Anderson's script held up since its initial Broadway run of 712 performances beginning in 1953. His tale of a sensitive young man suffering under unfounded suspicions remains a compelling tale.

It's less fortunate that this production is so uneven. As Tom Lee, Dan McCabe (who's building some nice off-Broadway credits) brings the timeless discomfort of a sensitive teenager trying to fit into a boy's school which values virility over intelligence.

Seeing qualities in Tom that remind her of her late first husband, Laura (Heidi Ambruster) aches over his pain and is eager to make up for things she didn't do or couldn't have done the first time. Ms. Ambruster, pretty and eager, doesn't manage to bring the quiet dignity that this role requires. She seems stuck in her craft of awkward poses, arms akimbo, and looking off to nowhere in particular when delivering some of her lines. While Laura is not happy in her current environment, she is certainly comfortable in her own skin. Ms. Ambruster seems to have missed that. She is almost glib when she talks about her first husband, hidden behind a nervous smile that undercuts many of her lines.

As Laura's husband Bill, who is the housemaster where Tom lives, he's got his own set of issues demonstrated by a glimpse of paranoia when he shares his own difficulties with Laura about growing from a boy into a man, almost confessing to the sins of which Tom is wrongfully accused.

As Al, Tom's uber-jock roommate, Brandon Espinosa has a nice turn trying to be loyal to his friend, but torn by pressure from classmates and his own father to separate himself from Tom.

Tom's father, Herb Lee (Dan Cordle) looks more uncomfortable about being on stage that uncomfortable about the situation with his character's son.

Director Jonathan Silverstein treats the script with a nice touch of reverence, but doesn't seem to have been able to communicate that to his cast, with such uneven performances. The set by Beowulf Boritt and Jo Winiarski looks like some of their concept might have gotten lost in translation or just jumbled in the metaphors. All grey set pieces on a wash of blue stage and walls, with a roof frame outline that extends over the audience leaves me wondering how many things they are trying to say. Is the empty roof trying to convey inclusion and safety? Are the "shades of grey" a representation of perception and interpretation? Is the blue background a false sense of the blue-sky 1950s? (If so, the shade of blue was a bit dark.) Josh Bradford's lighting accomodates the proceedings.

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