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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Barrow Street Theatre


  David Cromer/Ph: Caror Rosegg

Is a little charm too much to ask? As both the director of and the actor playing the stage manager in Thornton Wilder's 1938 classic Our Town, David Cromer is emotionally retentive to the point of begrudging - and not in the flinty Yankee manner that Wilder so clearly had in mind. Our cicerone on the journey through prototypal rural lives, circa 1901-13, appears to have some sort of chip on his shoulder. It's as if he didn't really want to lead us there, and if we persist, that's our funeral.

Or Emily's, really-and I'm not giving away any plot points here, because I doubt there's a post-adolescent in the land who hasn't been exposed to this evocative script, a work of revolutionary genius in its day.

Wilder took the bold (for then) step of busting through the fourth wall. Cromer's company has taken the not -so-bold step of setting the action in and among the audience, under the punishing glare of lights bright enough to interrogate by. The intended subtext- "They are us!"- seems both over-obvious and overworked, Wilder having already masterfully gotten that point across. All that the rejiggering really accomplishes is a lot of frustrating sightlines and virtually no chance that we'll ever let our imaginations slip into the quaint early 20th century setting which the text depicts in such loving detail.

Wilder dispensed with scenery and virtually all props. Cromer and costume designer Alison Siple have done away with period clothing as well, overlooking the fact that how people dressed also informed how they moved and even felt. Tees and hoodies, pant suits for the women for formal occasions... My internal Etch-a-Sketch strove in vain to erase these contemporary intrusions, along with the actors' grating modern postures and diction.

The worst offender by far is Jennifer Grace, who plays Emily-that sweet, shielded country flower-like a riot grrrl with a major grudge. You wonder that George (a genial if over-mature James McMenamin) doesn't head for the hills when this termagant-in-training lights into him for being a "snob" - a mild courtship ritual which in this rendering reads like the Inquisition.

And when the dead Emily returns among the living for one nostalgia-drenched day? She's still mad as a wet hen, and here Cromer goes all out on the verisimilitude, revealing a hyper-detailed secret set awaft with the smell of frying bacon. It's a cheap, eleventh-hour trick which only serves to underscore the sensory deprivation and disjunction to which his mingy approach has thus far subjected the audience .

Thornton Wilder wrote a fine, spare, enduringly modern play, which neither needs nor deserves arty, redundant gussying -down.




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