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By Kathryn Ceceri

The Novelist
By Howard Fast
Oldcastle Theatre Company, Bennington, Vt., through July 25

I went through my Jane Austen phase many years ago—I even passed up the recent spate of film adaptations except for Clueless, the 1990s adaptation of Austen’s 1816 novel Emma—but I’ve always retained a fondness for the feisty spinster who turned out such wickedly honest tales of courtship and society in pre-Victorian England. In The Novelist, the character unexpectedly pursued by a worthy if not-very-dashing suitor is Austen herself, and her stalwart if socially clumsy wooer is a retired sea captain by the name of Thomas Crighton.

Austen, who at 41 has already written most of her masterpieces and is working on Persuasion, is startled by the sudden appearance at the open door of her Hampshire cottage of a total stranger who claims he loves her, and intends to marry her, based solely on the strength of her books. The prolific playwright Howard Fast, who died last year at the age of 88, draws us in to the dilemma of an independent female who, ironically, makes her living writing about women who define themselves and each other by their marriages while resisting taking part in the game herself, and of the man who in wit, intellect and wealth has little to tempt his self-sufficient idol—other than the promise of physical love. But though the pleasurable tension builds throughout the first act, the second half of The Novelist peters out without offering the audience an equally powerful ending. What makes the jumbled story more disappointing is that the entire romance was invented out of whole cloth, meaning there are no historical excuses for allowing the drama of the piece to seep away.

Grace Kiley, who has played the role of Austen before in other productions, is quite a youthful and lovely middle-aged spinster, and the towering Eric Peterson, who is also the Oldcastle Theater Company’s producing artistic director, looks dashing in his tails, britches and riding boots. But the pair, who shared uncredited directing duties, could have benefited from some third-party intervention. The staging is awkward: In the opening scene, as the two characters tentatively sniff each other out, they are constantly leaning over to touch the furniture and just missing, as if someone had sawn an inch off of all the table and chair legs in the night. When they return from a pleasant walk bearing flowers, Kiley engages in the business of dividing them into small vases, but instead of brightening up the room they look haphazard. At one point, she has to reach both arms around a bunch of daisies to pour Peterson’s tea. I spent much of the first act wondering if the halting way Peterson delivered his lines was a problem of breath control or a way to signal Crighton’s hesitation in the face of greatness. In either case, the constant pauses mid-sentence broke up what I always picture as Austen’s quick, smart repartee.

Set design by Kenneth Mooney was appealing, but the neutral-colored monochromatic empire gowns, which Kiley designed, could probably have accepted just a little bit of ornamentation without betraying Austen’s modest personal style. Putting words in the mouths of great writers always brings the risk of appearing pale by comparison; for brilliant portrayals of men and women in the age of Austen, we still have to turn to Austen herself.

Extra Fun

Stones in His Pockets
By Marie Jones, directed by Jerry Manning
Adirondack Theatre Festival, Charles R. Wood Theater, Glens Falls, through July 17

Adirondack Theatre Festival’s Stones in His Pockets is the theatrical equivalent of skipping stones. There’s a lot of pleasure seeing how many skips a flat rock will make over the water, and it’s fun experimenting with different-sized and-shaped stones. If done correctly, the stones seem to skip into oblivion; the round ripples will expand into nothingness as the rock skims the surface disappearing from view rather than sinking to the depths. It’s good idle fun that appeals to a very basic level.

Stones in His Pockets has been pleasing audiences since its 1999 opening in Belfast; its four-year run in London and its current award-winning revival in Dublin (with the original two-actor cast) attest to the play’s crowd-winning elements. ATF’s Stones does the play and its audience well, hitting the comic elements with delightfully broad caricatures that brought the house to a standing ovation by the witty curtain call.

The play is a comic actor’s dream: It allows the dynamic duo of Kirk Jackson and Oliver Wadsworth (last seen together in the area in 2001 in ATF’s winning production of Art) to play with 30 different characters, rippling around the central duo of Jake and Charlie, respectively, two film extras earning 40 pounds per day on The Quiet Valley, a satire of the latest Hollywood blockbusters to use scenic, historic Ireland as location. Playwright Marie Jones, herself an extra in Irish-set movies like 1993’s In the Name of the Father starring Daniel Day-Lewis, creates a play that skips off in concentric ripples around the two County Kerry dreamers. Jake longs to be a movie star and Charlie has written a screenplay about his life. When Jake is seduced by The Quiet Valley’s star, Caroline Giovanni, who has a habit of going native, Jake is warned by the assistant director: Charlie exclaims, “We could be farting through silk.” Stones races through scenes and characters with a Whose Line Is It Anyway? pace and depth; these are broad, funny strokes, tics and accents slung out in bracing form as they recede from view.

Done before set designer James Noone’s minimalist set of 12 orange scaffolding pipes, with three crossbars to form three doorways roughly upcenter, mid-stage right and left, framed upstage by a black trapezoid, before an ever-changing cyclorama that simulates the colors of the Irish flag or the Irish twilight or the Irish landscape or the interior of an Irish pub, Stones in His Pocket creates a hurly-burly out of two actors’ morphing characters, all of them desperate for validation—whether it’s acclaim or riches or just a day’s wages of Guinness, everyone in County Kerry involved with The Quiet Valley has a dream.

Wadsworth and Jackson are particularly wonderful invoking the dream during a hilarious set piece wherein they dance an elaborate wedding jig for the movie, dancing as the various characters and summing up Jake’s dream where “the stars become extras and the extras become stars.” It’s a wonderful movement that is repeated during the curtain call, and such physical flourishes show crowd-pleasing panache. Stones in His Pockets should not be skipped.

—James Yeara

Old friends: (l-r) Noble and Fallon in A Bench in the Sun.

Retiring, But Not Shy

A Bench in the Sun
By Ron Clark, directed by Steve Fletcher
Curtain Call Theatre, through Aug. 14

After a season that included challenging works like Taking Leave and Joe Orton’s Loot, Curtain Call is offering its audience the theater equivalent of a summer beach book. A Bench in the Sun is a light, funny Neil Simonesque piece with a twist: Its odd couple—Burt, the grumpy old man who takes so many naps he doesn’t see the point of getting out of his pajamas, and Harold, his dapper, upbeat neighbor at Valley View Gardens—find themselves slipping out of their self-appointed roles when a new resident starts to shake things up. Adrienne Bliss, a retired actress who used to star in gangster movies with that character whose name Harold can’t recall (“Fred Astaire” quips Burt) arrives one spring and immediately starts planning activities that will force the seniors to break out of their comfortable routines.

Jack Fallon adroitly inhabits the role of Burt, who obsessively reads the news so he can find something else to complain about. With his wild hair, his bathrobe, and his heavy Jewish accent, Fallon creates a very recognizable type of man, a realist who doesn’t expect anything good so he’ll never be disappointed. John Noble, who showed great range as the literature professor succumbing to Alzheimer’s in Taking Leave, is all smiles as Harold, the annoying eternal optimist ever on the lookout for Wife No. 4. But he becomes more interesting when cracks begin to appear in his sunny veneer as it looks like things may not go as he planned.

As Adrienne, Joanne Westervelt calls to mind the goofy energy of Katherine Helmond, the spacey matron of Brazil and TV’s Soap. Beneath her bouncy red pageboy wig she’s a svelte senior, though the men speculate that some parts may have had a few upgrades over the years. She’s the grandma who runs the show (but whose own family never makes it for a visit), the self-appointed social director whose goal is to see that everyone’s having a good time, and the spitfire who’s ready to man the barricades if a fight is in the works.

Like the food at Valley View Gardens, A Bench in the Sun doesn’t require a lot of chewing. Still, there’s enough substance—and more than enough laughs—to satisfy an audience’s craving for a tasty summer treat.

—Kathryn Ceceri

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