Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Theater Review: An Opening in Time -- Hartford Stage

Deborah Hedwall and Patrick Cear. Photo courtesy of Hartford Stage.
Going Home Again Doesn’t Always Work Out The Way You’d Hope . . .
By Lauren Yarger
Playwright Christopher Shinn’s latest play, An Opening in Time, getting its world premiere at Hartford Stage, is proof for both its author and its characters that going home again doesn’t always work out the way you’d hoped.

Shinn sets the play in his native Wethersfield, CT and for locals, there are street and city names as familiar as the historic, clapboard houses depicted in Antje Ellermann’s grey backdrop where this late-in-life romance takes place. The play itself, never seems to come together, however, and is plagued by scenery that so frequently appears from beneath the stage via trapdoors that we think it should be titled “An Opening in the Floor,” rather than “An Opening in Time.”

The idea is that the main characters, Anne and Ron (excellently portrayed by Deborah Hedwall and Patrick Clear) missed an opening in time 30 years ago when they could have been together and now, following Anne’s return to her small town roots following the death of her husband, they’ve got another opening for romance.

Ron and his buddy, Frank (Bill Christ) are regulars at the local Greek-owned diner, where Anetta (an engaging Kati Brazda), a surly Polish waitress with attitude slings spanakopita and coffee while they watch TV. One night, Ron spies Anne and they make plans to get together. She doesn’t seem to recall their last time together, however, before she left with her husband and son to start a new life on a farm. He is hurt, because that is when they declared their love for each other.

The couple gets together a few times, but nothing seems to work right. It’s fitting, because the play itself seems to be having a hard time getting comfortable. Once we discover the significance and complexity of the couple’s last meeting, it is implausible that Anne would forget it or that Ron would accept that she just didn’t remember. The misunderstandings that resulted in in the couple’s separation could be better explained.

Meanwhile, there is a side story involving Anne’s neighbors. The former teacher is drawn to George (Brandon Smalls), a teen living in the foster care of her new neighbor, and influenced by his older brother who has been in trouble with the law. The neighbor, uppity homophobe Kim (Molly Camp), undermines the friendship between George and Anne, especially when Anne is supportive of George’s desire to be known as a female named Corey.

After waiting and waiting for something to happen between Anne and Ron, it appears that her friendship with George might keep them apart, just as her concern for her son, Sam (Karl Miller) was a factor in keeping the couple apart 30 years ago. Nothing ever really seems to happen in the two acts lasting about an hour and 45 minutes.

There are some sparks in confrontations between Anne and Sam, who has been accused of inappropriate sexual contact with one of his students (another subplot that doesn’t take us anywhere), and between Anne and Ron over what really happened 30 years ago. There just isn’t enough here to hold our interest, however. It’s easy to get distracted, especially by the set pieces that keep popping in from below.

The diner counter, which factors in many scenes, should have been made part of the stationary set, like Anne’s kitchen, to eliminate the distraction. The sight of Ron and Frank seated at the counter as they ride the counter up from below repeatedly brings laughter from the audience. In its final appearance, the counter appears in a new spot with a booth taking its place, staging the diner from the rear instead of from the front perspective. It is sloppy and not well planned. Yes, we know Hartford Stage has trap doors now (along with a nifty new marquee), but they aren’t needed for every set change.

Add to that the fact that almost every scene involves the characters eating and we have more reason to be distracted. Anetta thuds down numerous dishes at the diner, Anne bakes a pie, Ron bakes cookies. Sam and Anne meet at a restaurant…. Scenes really can be – and should be -- structured around people doing things besides eating. I could almost make a case for the title of this one being “An Opening of the Mouth.”

Forgive me for being peevish, but I was expecting a more cohesive play from the Pulitzer Prize finalist for Dying City. Shinn also won a 2005 OBIE in Playwriting and a Guggenheim Fellowship in Playwriting. He was shortlisted for the London Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Play and has been nominated for an Olivier Award for Most Promising Playwright and the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Playwright. An Opening in Time has an interesting premise and some thought provoking themes about seizing opportunities and second chances, but they fail to come together and the play becomes a missed opportunity itself.

Director Butler, a founder and co-Artistic Director of The Debate Society, gives everything he can and coaxes fine performances, which are the saving grace of the production. Even Mike Keller, who plays the very small role of a police detective who investigates when someone breaks Anne’s windows, stands out with an effective performance. Hedwall and Clear achieve good rapport and enough depth to make their characters interesting people we would like to see get a second chance at love. We just don’t believe why they are still apart and give up caring while we wait for something to happen in between appearances of the scenery.

An Opening in Time plays through Oct. 11 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday evenings at 7:30 pm.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm.   Tickets $25-$95.  (860) 527-5151; www.hartfordstage.org.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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