"On the Verge"
Westport Country Playhouse, Westport
Have you ever played the “what if” game with time? To be specific, what if your grandparents were to return today, having died some thirty years ago? What would they make of cell phones, chat rooms, cable, laptops, hybrid cars, Ground Zero, organic foods, weapons of mass destruction? Would they be lost in a new language?
This is the game played by Eric Overmyer, whose disappointing drama “On the Verge” has just opened at the Westport Country Playhouse. Not an original premise, neither now nor when the play made its initial appearance in 1985. Writers have long been fascinated with time, viewing that dimension as the ultimate boundary to be conquered. If one could move back and forth in time, one would be truly free. And indeed there have been numerous films, plays, novels, and television series on the subject. In fact, the whole genre of sci-fi is devoted to that concept.
Overmyer sets his opening act in 1888, with three intrepid lady explorers venturing into Terra Incognita, as he names it. They have already traversed such exotic realms as Malaysia and the Himalayas, and they are full of the stories of their venturesome past. Eventually the playwright will move his heroines into the 20th century, their Terra Incognita, but the first act is given over to their reminiscences. This makes for a wordy, static first act. Not that the playwright’s stream of words are not clever, sometimes witty and occasionally quite poetic, but the language seems to be an end unto itself. It is not until the second act, when the heroines come into the 20th century, that actual confrontations take place and there is a sense of drama.
What does save this “On the Verge,” to some degree, is the production itself. Under the astute direction of Tazewell Thompson (the Playhouse’s new artistic director), the piece is most effectively staged. Thompson opens with his trio of ladies posed dramatically against a stark black background, and clothed in gorgeous clothes suggesting the period (courtesy of costume designer Carrie Robbins). They are also equipped with elegant backpacks and huge steamer trunks. As they slosh through the jungle mud, the costumes themselves lend humor to the occasion. Others of the design team must be commended as well: Donald Eastman (sets), Robert Wierzel (lighting), and Fabian Obispo (sound and original music), all of which enhance the proceedings.
Mostly, Thompson gets good performances from his four players. Molly Wright Stuart (Fanny) is particularly fetching as an improbable lady explorer of grace and delicacy, and Susan Bennett (Alex) creates a feisty character, gradually coming into her own as she moves toward modern times. Laiona Michelle, however, goes over the top as she plays the forceful Mary, and it is only at the close, with her explosive tribute to the future, that this style works well. Tom Beckett, as the one male with many faces, gets it right in some portrayals, but is embarrassingly awkward in others—for example, as night-club owner Nicky Paradise of the 1950s. At such moments, both director and player seem at fault.
Moments of wit, glimpses into the future, and glorious costumes are not enough to launch the Westport Country Playhouse successfully into its 2006 season. Would that Mr. Thompson and company had chosen a different piece for its opening show!
-- Irene Backalenick
Mar. 12, 2006