Monday, September 28, 2015

Two Left Feet: An Opening in Time

Deborah Hedwall and Patrick Clear in An Opening in Time at the Hartford Stage. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Christopher Shinn’s An Opening in Time is about a middle-aged man and woman, once colleagues on the faculty of a high school, who nearly became lovers when both were married to other people. Now widowed, Anne returns to the town she once lived in, partly to be closer to the son who has stopped talking to her but mainly, it turns out, in the hope that she can rekindle the spark of romance spark with Ron, who is now divorced. Shinn has spoken about the influence of The Winter’s Tale on the writing of this play, and certainly the idea links up with Shakespeare’s theme of interruption and delay and his double vision of time as both thief and healer. But An Opening in Time, which is having its premiere at Hartford Stage in a clunky production by Oliver Butler, is more interesting to contemplate than to watch. I don’t know Shinn’s other plays (Dying City garnered some notice) but this one is crippled by banality and by dramaturgical clumsiness. The characters have to keep explaining themselves to each other because the writing doesn’t develop them dramatically.

The plot is complicated and runs off in several disparate directions. Ron (Patrick Clear) is a high school drama instructor approaching retirement who eats most of his meals at a local diner, often in the casual company of a friend (Bill Christ), bantering with the waitress (Kati Brazda). He’s lonely, but when Anne (Deborah Hedwall) stops by the restaurant one day he’s so unnerved that he pretends he doesn’t see her – even though, in typical small-town fashion, he’s well aware that she’s come back before they ever across paths. Anne’s life is more fraught than his. Her son Sam (Karl Miller) was arrested for sleeping with a high school student (he was her vocal coach) and is out on bail, awaiting trial, but she can’t get him to return her calls; he hasn’t spoken to her since shortly after the death of his father, ostensibly because of some trivial remark he thought insensitive. Upon moving back, she develops a friendship with George (Brandon Smalls), the teenage boy next door, whose foster mother, Kim (Molly Camp), is at first welcoming to Anne and then, abruptly, finds reasons to avoid her. George, who grew up in a troubled neighborhood, is trying to figure out who he is (in ways that only become clear at the end of the first act), and he finds Anne more sympathetic to his struggle than Kim.

I couldn’t put the rambling narrative together in my head until the play was over. The characters’ behavior is often befuddling, but what seems to unify it – Ron’s resistance to the woman he claims he never stopped loving, Sam’s estrangement from Anne, Kim’s pulling away from her, George’s sudden aggression toward her, even the waitress Anetta’s unmotivated dislike of her – is that none of them can own up to the source of their anger and frustration so they wind up misdirecting it. But must Anne be the target of all this misguided intensity of feeling? It turns the play’s protagonist into a dramatic convenience. And since none of the other characters is well drawn either, the actors are left without much to play beyond Shinn’s half-worked-out ideas. Miller is good in his one scene as Sam; in a subtle, understated way he manages to suggest a real human being. (I’ve had college students like him: smart and wrought up and painfully uncomfortable in their own skin.) And I liked Mike Keller in a small role as a local cop who comes to investigate when someone breaks Anne’s window. No one else in the cast gets beyond the limitations of the writing.

The stage has to encompass several houses (mostly Anne’s) as well as the diner; the script cries out for a simple unit set. Instead Antje Ellermann has designed a big apparatus with Anne’s kitchen shoved way upstage to accommodate all the other locations; whenever the action shifts to the diner, a stage hand rolls the counter on and a table rises out of a trap, as does a corner of the pizza joint where Ron and Anne, reliving old memories, meet for a meal. Though the set changes are efficient enough, there’s a lot of unwarranted attention given to the appearing and disappearing of (sometimes fairly involved) pieces of furniture. In the last diner scene, the counter and the table switch places, which is pretty confusing until you realize that the dramatic focus of the scene is a conversation between Anne and Ron at the table and neither Ellermann nor Butler could figure out another way to avoid upstaging them. This is direction that calls attention to itself because it’s so fussy and inelegant. And I can’t remember the last time I saw a play where the characters consume so much damn food: pie, pizza, chocolate chip cookies, rice pudding. It’s kitchen-sink realism taken to ridiculous lengths. I think I worked out what Shinn is doing with his characters, but I’ll be damned if I know why he wants them to spend so much time chowing down.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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