Friday, October 28, 2011

A lost opportunity at the Huntington

The cast of Before I Leave You.
Okay, I'm just going to say this fast, because there's no nice way to say it. The Huntington's latest show, Before I Leave You, by Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro, is a huge disappointment.  My dismay over its failure is all the more piercing because the production marks a late-career breakthrough for the 72-year-old author, a Cambridge resident, who (it is plain from her writing) is a lovely person who knows her milieu, and has something worthwhile - if perhaps not terribly original - to say.

But the bottom line is that this script isn't ready for a professional production.  Instead, right now it feels like it's ready for a first reading, perhaps, with a substantial rewrite to follow.  That the play's theme revolves around the passage of time, and the need to grab the main chance while you still have the chance, only makes this gap in quality all the more poignant, I know.

The gap nevertheless still looms. Ms. Alfaro seems to have intended to pen a rueful essay on love at the end of life, and the issues that plague a failing marriage; in her opening scene, an aging Cambridge writer, Jeremy (Ross Bickell) suffers a choking episode that makes him realize he may not have much time left among the living.  And we glean from stolen glances and other asides that he has long carried a torch (silently) for Emily (Kippy Goldfarb), the wife of a narcissistic best friend and colleague, Koji (Glenn Kubota).

So far, so good; we fully expect Ms. Alfaro to gear up for a meditation on late-September romance, with all its emotional (and here moral) pitfalls.  Think Brief Encounter crossed with Love Among the Ruins set just off Brattle Street.  Will Jeremy make his move, we wonder?  Will Emily respond?  Will she make a clean break with her husband or will the lovers slink along on the down low?  We sense Ms. Alfaro's script could move in any number of interesting, complex directions.

Instead, it runs in circles - to the smoky melody of Kurt Weill's "September Song," which would be the perfect accompaniment to the play Ms. Alfaro seems to think she's writing, but doesn't get around to until the very last minute.  In the meantime we're distracted repeatedly by subplots which the author can't seem to integrate into her main action - Emily and Koji's troubled son becomes the focus of the first act, for instance (while Jeremy takes a back seat!) even though his plotline is all but dropped after intermission.  And Koji (himself an adulterer, we quickly realize) is lavished with stage time, even though Alfaro doesn't develop his character so much as repeat the broad strokes of her initial sketch.  Meanwhile Jeremy stays passive, Emily remains a cipher, and the play becomes increasingly episodic - scenes end repeatedly well before they should, sometimes before their implicit conflicts have even come clear.

How did this happen?  I'm not sure, as the question here isn't adventurous plotting or structure, it's a simple lack thereof.  I perceived sometimes the effects of last-minute rewrites - in the wrong direction, probably (the old pros in the cast were a little unsteady on their lines, and even their blocking).  But whatever the reason for its failure, the production casts a poor light on the Huntington's new play program, which has never been strong on instilling structure in its offerings, but this time around seems to have completely blown what was a truly inspiring opportunity.  To be blunt, I feel Ms. Alfaro's nascent script, which even now boasts some clever jokes and a few touching exchanges, deserved far more vigorous and focused guidance than it has received.  Fixing it isn't rocket science; it's just hard work.

And for what it's worth, Allen Moyer's scenic design - a kind of cityscape of bookshelves - is apt, but Jonathan Silverstein's direction feels aimless; perhaps he was hamstrung, however, by a flat central performance from Glenn Kubota, who brings little depth or complexity to the irritating Koji.  The other actors fare better, even if they sometimes look a bit uncertain of how to proceed.  I got the feeling Bickell and Goldfarb were simply holding back from the inchoate material, but the reliable Karen MacDonald, bless her, just dives right in - sometimes she's all but sweating bullets, you can see her working so hard to fill in moments and keep things moving.  And she's appealing - she always is - but in the end she can only draw focus (she's a supporting character); she can't actually push the production forward.  Only the author can do that - and I hope, actually, that someday and somehow Ms. Alfaro does return to this material.  Her initial idea was a good one; it just has yet to take effective dramatic form.


  1. Now THIS is how to write a review. Thank you.

  2. Well, I'm glad to discover I've finally managed to pull off what I've been trying to do now for something like eight years. Maybe eight years from now I'll score again!