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Natural love: Wold (top) and Weaver (bottom) in Ice Glen.

Service With a Smile
By James Yeara

Ice Glen

By Joan Ackerman, directed by Tina Packer,

Shakespeare & Company, through Sept. 4

Ironies drip in the rich Ice Glen at Shakespeare & Company’s Spring Lawn Theatre: Conceived at Spring Lawn, Shakespeare & Company’s fabulous soon-to-be-sold, turn-of-the-century mansion, Joan Ackerman’s new play is set in 1920 and tells of the sexy and sexually frustrated widow Dulce Bainbridge (the breathily sexy Elizabeth Aspenlieder) and her struggles with Stone Gate, a fabulous soon-to-be-sold turn-of-the-century mansion. The object of Mrs. Bainbridge’s desire is the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, Peter Woodburn (the stately and studly Michael Hammond), whose object of desire is the poetry of Sarah Harding (the gamine beauty Kristin Wold, who channels the soul of a feral cat in her performance), whose object of desire is a black bear wandering the Berkshire estate.

Bainbridge, Woodburn, and Harding exchange meaningful glances, articulate sublime intimations of immortality and wear scrumptious costumes. The power of poetry, of art and of country property is plumbed as the three waltz through arch scenes of hypersensitivity and profundity.

Yet for all the talk of the power of poetry and art among the genteel trio, it is the play’s working-class characters who show the poetry, live the poetry and are the poetry in Ackerman’s funny, moving, witty, and pleasurably engaging play. While Bainbridge has a marvelous tirade near the play’s end about the country’s “nobility of spirit” that drew applause from the moneyed audience, three servants form the soul of Ice Glen.

Denby (Brian Weaver), Grayson (Dennis Krausnick), and Mrs. Roswell (Gillian Seidl) not only take care of the physical needs of Stone Gate (and its residents)—shaking their heads sadly at the leaks and unraked leaves, fighting the good fight against mice, snakes, and the climate—but they also speak with Wordsworthian enthusiasm for that nature: Nature that is part of their lives, not merely part of the scenery. Nature lives in their work. Nature is not a font of inspiration, nor a source for watercolor renderings and poetical musing. The three actors create characters so exact, natural and eccentric that each scene they create breathes. Weaver’s Denby is Mother Nature’s son, his scenes are as bright and lively as his smiles. The audience immediately connects with him, and follows him, cares for him, sympathizes with him. Denby’s scene “sledding” with Sarah on the table creates howls of delight in the audience, but the physicality and the flight of fancy are perfectly in tune with Denby’s character.

Krausnick’s Grayson is the wise servant who sees and knows more than his “betters,” and his constant focus on work, on nurturing and on creating stand in stark contrast to the poses of the rich. Seidl’s Roswell is an Irish Earth Mother who uses the bounty of the Berkshire estate with an intimacy Bainbridge and Woodburn can’t comprehend. The laughter of Ice Glen comes from these three, and it is with the trio of Stone Gate servants that the poetry of Ackerman is unveiled.

Getting to Know You

Visiting Mr. Green

By Jeff Baron, directed by Marna Lawrence

Curtain Call Theatre, through July 9

Visiting Mr. Green is a showcase for the actor playing the elderly widower of the title, and in Curtain Call’s production of the play (which starred Eli Wallach in its world premiere at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in 1996) Paul Richer is uncanny as the sort of crotchety Jewish pessimist who drives younger relatives crazy. Lost and distracted since the recent death of his beloved wife of nearly 60 years, Mr. Green shuffles around his Upper West Side apartment (skillfully designed by Dee Mulford), overflowing with old bills, paper bags and dirty laundry, until a busy young executive begins stopping by to lend a hand.

Ross Gardiner, played by Jonathan Whitton, is not related to Mr. Green, although there is a connection. The two were involved in a traffic accident, as a result of which Gardiner must make weekly visits to the older man for six months or go to jail. Playwright Baron gets a lot of mileage out of Gardiner’s repeated explanations to the forgetful 86-year-old of why he is there.

“If you saw me, why did you hit me?”

“I didn’t hit you. I almost hit you.”

Helping Mr. Green is not an easy job. He doesn’t want his piles of mail touched or the dead flowers in the vase discarded. His phone is disconnected—“Who needs it?”—his curtains always drawn, and there’s no TV to connect him to the outside world. He nearly has a fit when Gardiner tries to bring him some soup, fearing it will contaminate his kosher kitchen until convinced it comes from Fine & Shapiro down the street. Then, although his refrigerator is completely empty, he refuses to admit he’s hungry or that the food tastes good, only deigning to eat because it would be a shame to waste it. But over time the two men form a bond which, despite Green’s inability to discard all his old prejudices, becomes surprisingly close.

Playwright Jeff Baron, a former corporate marketing exec and television writer, doesn’t do anything new with the dramatic form here, but in his straightforward way does achieve some truly funny and touching moments. Speaking as the granddaughter of a Jew who came to New York from Russia at around the same time as the fictional Mr. Green, I found the character (helped, of course, by Richer’s performance and Marna Lawrence’s direction) utterly convincing. But Baron is somewhat less successful with Gardiner, the Harvard-trained businessman. It’s hard to believe that even 10 years ago a Gen-X financial wizard would be walking around without a cell phone, let alone so afraid to admit he’s a fagele, at least among his peers. Adding to the disconnect is a feeling that Jonathan Whitton is just not made to wear a business suit; he doesn’t quite have that Master of the Universe swagger required of all young New York hotshots. It’s only as Gardiner begins to let down his guard, talking about his running or his personal life—and perhaps not coincidentally, as Baron ratchets up the emotional volume of the play as well—that Whitton comes into his own. While critics have argued that Baron’s ending is not realistic, for the audience it is totally satisfying. And after all, who said a play that talks about serious things can’t have a happy ending?

—Kathy Ceceri


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