Saturday, June 6, 2009

Back to the future

You could be forgiven for abandoning the Nora's new production of On the Verge (at left) at half-time - because at that point Eric Overmyer's script seems too postmodern-ly twee, too drunk on its own Victoriography, and too dependent on dramatic filler (the abominable snowman even shows up). But stick with this wordy trek into nebulous metaphor. Because it's actually on the verge of cohering into a sweet, rueful piece of boomer nostalgia. And the able cast, which has a little trouble balancing their vocabularies with their characterizations early on, quickly relaxes (once given some real dramatic material) into a wittily poised ensemble.

Not that Overmyer's early scenes lack charm; it's just that charm is all they've got - and it wears thin over the course of an hour. We quickly get a handle on his affectionately patronizing attitude toward his Victorian ladies (Mary, Fanny and Alexandra), who venture into "Terra Incognita" armed with umbrellas, pith helmets, and apparently the Oxford English Dictionary (don't worry, the Nora provides a glossary for such tongue-twisters as "somnambulist" and "polytopian"). As this trio sallies forth, however, we likewise soon glean that they're actually venturing into Tempus, not Terra, Incognita - soon they're encountering such artifacts as "I Like Ike" buttons and stainless-steel eggbeaters, as well as seeming denizens of the future (all played by the energetically versatile Barlow Adamson).

Now perhaps at its premiere, the play's free-ranging conceptual conceit took longer to sink in; but after two decades of postmodern narrative pranks, we feel we're always a step or two ahead of these determined ladies. And the show's politics likewise feel - well, almost as antiquarian as their bloomers. For we also sense early on (indeed, as soon as that " Ike" button appears) that "the future" is going to turn out to be the American 50's or 60's. (After all, that's where all of history was headed, wasn't it?) And that the play's central concern is going to be these ladies' "liberation" in that great suburban tide of pop commerce and consumer choice.

The women of On the Verge - Alicia Kahn, Deanna Dunmyer, and Anna Waldron.

This perhaps explains the weakness of Overmyer's first act, with its amusing but extraneous cannibals and snowmen - he's just been biding his time before he got to his real material. And once there, he suddenly displays (with the help of Wesley Savick's likewise suddenly-subtle direction) a surprisingly rueful depth. The playwright has only superficially differentiated his characters until now - Mary's the plucky explorer, Fanny's the romantic conservative, Alexandra's the spunky young thing who wants to wear trousers. But at the top of his second half, his theme suddenly deepens, with the introduction of an Angel-of-Death-like figure called "Mr. Coffee," who hints at the sad underside of the explosion of "freedom" in the 50's. For our postwar commercial paradise essentially undoes the adventurous spirit of Fanny and Alexandra (just as it perhaps did our own) - they both settle down, in beehive hair-do's and capri pants, happy with the vast expanse of pop culture paraphernalia that slowly fills the theatre (and which seems to replace their enormous vocabularies). But inevitably, the sense of genuine romance that once animated them evaporates (indeed, Mr. Coffee's big news was that Fanny's lost husband had both betrayed her and subsequently died - and so soon she's curled up with some smarmy lounge singer). Only Mary hangs on to her sense of mission, eventually disappearing into an as-yet-undiscovered future - perhaps where America, too, hangs onto its progressive spirit, and Reaganism never happens.

So there's a kind of mournful critique buried in Overmyer's script that makes it worthwhile - and it's given its full due by the Nora cast. The stand-out here is Alicia Kahn, once a mainstay of the Wellesley Summer Theatre, and who I hope is on the verge of wider visibility in the mid-size theatre scene. Kahn's Fanny gets the best material, I suppose, but the actress also makes the most of it, hinting at a spooked sense of alienation beneath her slow embrace of 1955. Deanna Dunmyer and Anna Waldron remain perhaps slightly more imprisoned in Overmyer's Victorian ventriloquism, but both blossom to a lesser degree as the script marches onward. As their multifarious masculine consort/escort, Barlow Adamson keeps the manic energy level high, but only occasionally slips into caricature (as when he actually has to play a cannibal with gas - can you blame him?). Jacqueline Dalley's costumes are wittily appropriate, and Ryan McGettigan set is surprisingly evocative, while props coordinator Sacha Schawky has amassed a truly impressive collection of pop Americana. This is the strongest offering from the Nora I've seen for some time, and it's nice to see this theatre company get back on track.

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