Tuesday, May 20, 2014

On the Verge, but not quite over the top

Paula Langton takes a deep breath "on the verge." Photos: Andrew Brilliant

I've always had a soft spot for the mild charms of Eric Overmyer's regional hit from 1987, On the Verge - but it's not soft enough to explain why I've seen this cleverly over-written play so many times over the last few years. Is mild charm in such short supply? I guess so, because certainly the New Rep's current version didn't open any new perspectives on the script for me - although this strikingly designed production counts at least as a solid B+ effort.  Director Jim Petosa's take on Overmyer never really drags, but then never quite accelerates either; whenever Benjamin Evett is onstage, it seems to be on the verge (if you'll forgive me) of becoming something more than a slightly static entertainment. But it soon slides back into amusing-but-not-quite-compelling badinage once he's gone.

A few issues hold the production back. Petosa has cast three accomplished local stars as Overmyer's matched set of Victorian adventuresses who set off for "Terra Incognita" - but together they come off as a somewhat homogenous trio. The author's elaborate Victorian ventriloquism contributes to that (Overmyer consistently over-estimates the appeal of this trick), but I also didn't feel these leading ladies deeply identifying with their respective roles (Adrianne Krstansky, often a wonderful performer, had particular trouble getting in touch with her inner Republican). And alas, what arc the play has depends on their prickly differences, and the slow unraveling of their common bond.

Likewise Cristina Todesco's icily abstract design, though coolly elegant (see above), undermined another of Overmyer's tropes - we should only realize along with his characters that they are traveling through time, not space; but here they're obviously in some sort of limbo from the get-go. And Todesco's elegant spareness forbids another of Overmyer's gambits - his trio's slow discovery of an onslaught of inexplicable consumer goods is a central joke, and the absence of their rising tide robs the piece of its nostalgic dimension (for despite many refs to "the future," On the Verge is a solid piece of boomer nostalgia, and speaks in a rather dated voice today).

Benjamin Evett cuts loose.
A certain darker undercurrent in the writing is likewise missing; as Overmyer's heroines finally touch down in the 1950's, they encounter an angel-of-death who becomes known as "Mr. Coffee" - an intriguing nod toward the way that freedom and technology can destroy identity as well as enhance it. But Petosa doesn't allow such shadows on the landscape to last for long.

Luckily we don't mind, however, as New Rep stalwart Benjamin Evett (at left) is so very much fun as various 50's avatars (the grease monkey, the Vegas palooka, the rebel-without-a-cause). Like the rest of the production, Evett can't quite connect the dots between his many roles - he plays every male the women encounter (even a Yeti), and I have seen one production draw from this string of cameos a sense of comment on the shifting frame of masculinity.

But perhaps that's too much to ask - and I'm not even sure it's the author's intent (as I recall, one drag role is here inexplicably missing, btw). At any rate, it's simply a pleasure to watch Evett humming along on all cylinders. He gets all the author's best material, and he knows it, and he runs with it so far that for a time, he single-handedly manages to put On the Verge over the top.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of my favorite plays (I was considering producing it myself before New Rep announced their season), and I've seen it at numerous regional theatres, all of whom seem to stage it so spare and stark that it baffles/loses the audience because it asks too much too soon. Worst culprit by far was Arena Stage - the entire play was on a narrow platform diagonally spanning the arena, over a chasm, making the play frustratingly abstract and unapproachable (the three ladies were chemistry-free, and the man was a huge ham, which certainly didn't help), and by act two, a third of the audience was asleep and the other third left at intermission
    Best production by far was in a tiny theatre in Portsmouth NH. Design-wise it met the audience halfway - lots of props, exquisite costumes, and set pieces that actually represented the things that they were (as opposed to three chairs, bubble wrapped screens, and lots of beach balls). Three of my favorite actresses on the planet, with clearly defined and distince characterizations. The audience was invited in, the intimacy put the focus on the text and not spectacle.

    I wish Petosa kept the palanquin scene in, but judging the audience's antsy-ness the night I went, they were probably better off without it.