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New York City Theater

"Miss Witherspoon"
Playwrights Horizons

When an actor in a chicken suit warns, "The sky is falling!" you know you’re in Christopher Durang territory. Actually, what’s falling are parts of the doomed Skylab, prompting the titular character to commit her first suicide in "Miss Witherspoon," the droll, funny, inventive, somewhat sketchy, sometimes simplistic potpourri at Playwrights Horizons.

The real name of the hyper lady in question is Veronica but "Miss Witherspoon" is what she’s dubbed by Maryamma, the cool, sari-clad Indian lady she meets in the Bardo. From that limbo in-between heaven and earth, Maryamma returns the reluctant Miss W. to the world, to be reincarnated as two different infants, then as a dog. The idea is to get past "negative choices" in order to evolve, to make the world better by convincing people to abjure violence.

Miss W. must atone for her past, specifically her refusal to help her sister in the Salem witch trials. She was also a Wyoming dancehall hostess and a cloistered nun and was once married, she says, to Rex Harrison.

Director Emily Mann deftly balances the play’s stream of comic oddities with its surprisingly moving moments of hope. In a mad world, humanity still has a chance and who better to combine elements of daffiness and empathy than Kristine Nielsen? Bouncing on her toes, her bangs flipping one way while her eyes roll another, Nielsen is riotous and touching.

Mahira Kakkar is a stately Maryamma, while Lynda Gravátt doubles as a sympathetic teacher and a salty Jesus. Colleen Werthmann is amusing as two mothers, one neat, the other slatternly. Jeremy Shamos has a ball as a clueless father, a pothead, a happy dog owner, a pusher, and Gandalf (yes, the geezer from "Lord of the Rings").

David Korins' set and Darron L. West's soundscape cleverly bridge Durang's melding of two worlds. This is an untidy play that doesn't always stay on track. But the ride is fun.

-- David A. Rosenberg
December 2, 2005

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