Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Off-Broadway: Painting Churchs & other revivals

The Keen Company at Theater Row
written by Tina Howe
directed by Carl Forsman

Critics tend to thump for new plays over revivals, so I want to take a second to applaud the fine revivals of plays by American women right now. Edson's sharp Wit plays at MTC, which Vogel matches with How I Learned to Drive at Second Stage, and now Howe gets a nod from the Keen Company with Painting Churches. All three prove their stageworthiness by themselves. But it's good to see plays that were successful in their initial run get remounted. The productions serve to canonize the works and their writers, strengthening a modern tradition (which is larger and less rigid than a school or genre) of women writing great work. And it brings these plays from the '80s & '90s to a subsequent generation of theatergoers. I doubt these three shows are an incipient movement, but wouldn't it be cool if they heralded revivals of Fornes, Wasserstein, Congdon, and many others?

Of the three, Tina Howe's 1983 play is less dramaturgically flashy than Wit or Drive, presenting its three-actor family drama in a standard format of linear episodic realism. Its subject, a bohemian daughter who paints a portrait of her daffy parents, (wealthy Bostonians who have friends named “Spence Cabot”), offers minimal tension. Howe's style is elusive & challenging, subtly shifting dramatic focus along with audience sympathy from one character to another. A dreamy neoclassical set (Beowulf Boritt) captures her impressionistic tone, while the casual delivery of the actors (Kathleen Chalfant, John Cunningham, and Kate Turnbull) slowly plumbs deep pools of loneliness. Carl Forsman, however, directs the play with a forthright realism, perhaps a mistaken attempt to counterbalance Howe's limpid warmth with comedic whimsy. But Howe's lovely and humane play pulls loose from Forsman's anchoring, proving itself a sturdy script worth the revival.


Painting Churches plays at Theater Row, closing on April 7. Tickets?


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