Richard Hugo House; ends Sat., March 5
Shellie Shulkin made me put down my pen last week. Just so you know, I hardly ever put down my pen when I'm reviewing a show, unless I've so completely given up hope on a production that to continue taking notes would be like coldly documenting a gruesome death. Yet Shulkin made me put down my pen and laugh like a happy idiot for a good 20 minutes or so.
But first: Three Viewings, which Rachel Katz Carey has staged for theater simple, is a trio of monologues by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher. Hatcher has been well represented in Seattle: Intiman staged Smash, his fine Shaw adaptation, several seasons ago, as well as his excessively unambiguous take on The Turn of the Screw; the Empty Space had a stab at his sometimes incisive but more frequently underfed Nazi-in-the-making drama Hanging Lord Haw-Haw (which was not, I believe, joking when it featured lines like, "Darling, I do hope you become dictator soon"). Whatever his shortcomings, he's a sincere craftsman with a terrific, audience-friendly sense of humor that is, in the case of this work, reminiscent of a more urbane Neil Simon. (Oh, c'mon—you've never laughed at Neil Simon? Liar.)
In any case, the monologues here are all set in a small-town funeral parlor, where three deaths cause each grieving survivor to reveal a little of themselves in a moment of pained privacy. Hatcher is reaching to say something about the fearful particulars of human intimacy—oddball mortician Emil (Mark Fullerton) describes the accidental touch of his would-be beloved as "another detonation on the skin"—but the writing is much better when it decides to be funny: Desperate to communicate his affection to a frequent open-casket funeral attendee, Emil considers constructing "cryptography in the dead person's hair—find the 'NINA.'" (Anyone trusting an audience to get an Al Hirschfeld reference is all right by me.)
It's not quite as entertaining when the stories decide to go for a big finish. You can always tell when Hatcher has gotten to the point at which he thinks a monologue Means Something. He starts sensitively slugging away at us with tragedy and metaphor—wait'll you hear why acerbic corpse robber Mac (Llysa Holland) began plying her trade—and suddenly everything gets terribly cushy and poetical. It's like being hit by a velvet sledgehammer.
Director Carey responds by making sure every beating gets equal weight. The jokes are punched just as definitively as the heartbreak, which, given the unavoidable indelicacy of Hatcher's big dramatic moments, wasn't a bad decision, though it tends to threaten the illusion of spontaneity. You can palpably feel how every moment has been preordained.
Carey has a good cast on her hands, however, and their purposefulness means you won't miss anything. Fullerton communicates the frenzied look of a mad loner, and Holland's cool professionalism lends itself well to a character capable of calmly kissing the earrings off a dead body (although she doesn't emanate the manic disarray of a "bisexual, bipolar drug addict," and you'll just have to trust me on that one).
Shulkin is something else altogether. As an older widow who doesn't understand her daughter's sense of humor, and who has only recently learned that her late husband's shady business practices may have left her penniless, Shulkin has the nutty poise of some thick-skinned suburban grande dame and dexterously dishes out whatever Hatcher tosses her way. I wish I could quote some of her better lines—ah, yes, about her daughter: "She's listening to Prozac, and I don't want to interrupt." But, as I mentioned earlier, I was mostly far too delighted to bother with dictation. Three Viewings is worth a look, but it'sShulkin's little bit of comic, bittersweet perfection that will have you paying your respects. STEVE WIECKING
Seattle Repertory Theatre; ends Sat., March 12
Chaim Potok's debut novel, for all its fine artistic qualities, has an air of Yeshiva 101 about it. Much of The Chosen, published in 1967, comes on as a bighearted goy primer on the trials and tribulations of the Jewish faith in mid-20th-century America, wrapped neatly in a semi-tough but ultimately sentimental coming-of-age story full of grand ethical themes, broad emotional gestures, and enough sepia-toned wisdom to last two lifetimes. Oh—and it's set in motherless Brooklyn, with World War II as a backdrop. Toss into this rich holistic mix a baseball, some Freud, and two cardiac infarctions, and it's no wonder the book has proven the quintessential high-school reading requirement: It's its own metaphor, a text at once infinitely instructive, boldly unambiguous, and structurally conservative. Yet, for all its ethical largesse and worldly ambition, this story of two Jewish boys—one Orthodox, the other Hasidic—and their categorically larger-than-life fathers is a small, intimate fable of family life.
Director Aaron Posner, who worked with Potok in adapting the novel, hugs the action close to the small cast of characters, subtly evoking the feel of the neighborhood and the wider world as it filters through the dusky, bookish intimacy of the two families' homes. In Carey Wong's scenic design, the two rooms, worlds unto themselves, abut each other, offering a compositional portrait of each other's Otherness. Danny Saunders (Gabriel Baron) and his towering father, Reb (Eddie Levi Lee), a Hasidic leader, occupy spartan quarters that are almost exclusively devoted to study of the Talmud; in fact, father and son barely speak but to debate points of Jewish law. The home of Reuven Malter (Connor J. Toms) and his father, David (Larry Paulsen), is cluttered with books and papers and flooded with the omnipresent noise of the radio, as befits David's engagement with the outside world. When Danny and Reuven tangle on the baseball field, their antipathy is like the tension of fate itself. These two boys, in their separate paths to manhood, will pass though each other, emerging as alter egos: Reuven the Rabbi, and Danny a man of the world.
The folksy tone is set at the outset, when the older Reuven (a perfectly cast Aaron Serotsky) walks onstage and, in a meditative yet assured voice, addresses the audience: "While the war raged in Europe, Europe raged in Brooklyn. . . . " Hence Posner constructs the entire play as a flashback, and Serotsky's presence on the stage, observing his own reminiscences with a gentle smile, creates a powerful sense of confidentiality and familiarity.
Such a conceit, by removing all immediacy, also creates a remove, in essence whispering to the audience, "there will be no surprises here." It's difficult to imagine a better framing device, though the device also points up how truly conservative this play is, in every sense of the word—the production is risk-free. Morally, it is unassailably spot-on; it touches all the bases, from the Talmud to Zionism to the creation of Israel; and it's as formally digestible as a table of contents. It's got giggles and Yiddish and a hand-clasping worldview where conflict is resolved by steady applications of the expansive mechanism of tolerance. It's just the thing to bring Seattle to its feet, and that's not a bad thing, unless you fall prey to a sinking suspicion that theater, like Hollywood, has fallen prey to the numbers game, where the bigger the place, the safer the chase.
I smiled all the way through this show. It's a nice show. The production, the cast, the theater itself: first-rate. Yet why is it there seems to be an inverse relation between the comfort of the seats and the chance-taking onstage? RICHARD MORIN