Monday, February 07, 2011

THEATER: Apple Cove

Photo/Carol Rosegg
"Oh, we'd be so adult here," says Alan (Erin Gann), giddily ogling the newest lot in his father-in-law's precious gated community. How better to prove one's manhood, after all, than by playing a game of house? "Look! Here I am in our yard. Trimming the hedges. Whoops! I nicked myself. 'Honey! I nicked myself!'" His equally childish wife, Edie (Allison Mack), eagerly plays along, carefully describing the things she has been raised to believe denote adulthood and America: "I get the first aid kit, third drawer on the left of the faux marble wax-fruit bowl, I sprint down the hall covered in a 22-count, lavender, plush-pile carpet, and I bandage you. I grab a Puffs and blow my nose. Oh! It has aloe in it!" Lynn Rosen's Apple Cove, the latest in a string of solid productions from Women's Project, doesn't get much heavier than that, but as a light send-up of our carefully closeted "values," succeeds in being dizzyingly entertaining.

Like Christopher Durang, Rosen wastes no time in getting unhinged, relying on the theatrical equivalent of funhouse mirrors (grotesque exaggeration) to reflect the perils and limitations of leading a cloistered, ultra-conservative life. Edie's father, Gary (Paul Carlin), may have paved over Bear Swamp to build his community, but as the play skips between seasons and Edie's curiosities (amongst other things) are aroused by a worldly security guard, Duke (Dion Mucciacito), they'll all learn that nature cannot be limned -- for long -- by rules. And although the play is overstuffed and unnecessarily direct, Giovanna Sardelli's decision not to edit -- to let these elements run rampant -- actually works: Gary's second wife, Mary (Kathy Searle), who is half Stepford and half evil Stepmother, is so loud that she powers through the vacuousness of her role, and you can actually hear the Sarah Palin in her as she announces, "We bombed the Japs, remember? And now they're fine. See, Edie? Adjustion."

Further enhancing the production is Scott Bradley's pastel-hued set, so gloriously subdued that its hidden surprises -- a rampant vine, a cracking wall, a slide-out crib -- bring a genuine sense of transformation with them. Such aesthetics go hand-in-hand with Amy Clark's costumes, which have the delightfully unsettling effect of actually looking like costumes, in the sense that these are people attempting to convince themselves that they are something more than they are, from the little-kid shorts Edie wears in the first scene to the way Alan's work clothes always seem too large on him, whether it's the ridiculous green vest of Rec World or the suit he wears to his father-in-law's firm.

Such pop-up-book looks fit the explosive nature of the over-the-top acting, particularly the stellar performances of the tear-throttling Carlin and sharp-tongued Searle. Gann and Mack, who have more of an arc to their characters, are saddled with a more difficult task, but for the most part, succeed. Rosen's "four scenes, four seasons" structure has a variety of built-in routines, and Mack's blithe distortions of them trigger some great reactions from the tightly wound Gann: the highlight of Apple Cove is Edie's attempt to sexually awaken the repressed Alan -- a dirty dance made all the more humorous by Edie's awkward and clumsy motions . . . and the fact that it occurs in their imaginary son's crib. (Given the phonetics of Alan and Edie, the play's title, and the paradise-with-rules setting, I'm tempted to talk about how this all relates to Adam and Eve, but honestly, Rosen does nothing with the concept beyond suggesting it.)

Given all the similarities to Durang -- especially his recent and very flawed Why Torture Is Wrong . . . And the People Who Love Them -- it's important to point out that Rosen's greatest triumph is that despite all the bending-out-of-shape antics, Apple Cove actually has a solid ending. It's benign, and far from groundbreaking, but isn't it true, after all, that in order to appreciate all that wildness, one must have some sense of its difference from order?

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