The dos and don'ts of one-act plays were on the bill as the Common Basis Theatre presented Lulu's Back in Town by Judy Bissell and Surprise by Angela Hayden. Surprise was the better play, even as it flirted with self-indulgence; Lulu had some moments of good writing even though it was about too much and not enough at the same time.
Lulu (Martha Galphin) is indeed back in New York after living in the countryside for a number of years, but the playwright might have been better off if she had stuck to her characters and pared the number of themes in her one-act play. Upper East Side living, the Holocaust, Alzheimer's disease, civility, and the state of theatre in New York are some of the topics brought up, but all felt shoehorned into an otherwise fine setup - the coincidental meeting of two old friends. Lulu and Lila (Linda Creamer) knew each other years earlier when both were hoping for careers as dancers, and they meet again at the pool at the Y through Tina (Jackie Margolis), a mutual friend. Lulu shines with the thrill of being back in New York, but this was mostly through the glow given off by Galphin, a sparkle so appealing that it warranted a stronger showcase (Director Lloyd Price might have exploited this further also). Margolis had a gentle radiance as she delivered a lovely speech about clouds, but such moments were the exception rather than the rule for the play. Lawrence Frank scored in various roles, particularly as the "Pool Nazi" who wields his whistle like a whip. And it was sweet but not really necessary for the playwright to have Lulu wax enthusiastic about the joys of attending an Off-Off-Broadway play.
Surprise had some good end-of-intermission stage business as a cook, waitress, and a couple of customers did what people in diners do (the location was undefined, but it seemed Lower East Side-ish). The strong hand of director Dunsten J. Cormack continued throughout the play as various plot elements were introduced, but it was the characters who commandeered attention, and the impressive writing was complemented by sharp acting to make this a group worth watching. Eleni (Abbie Knopper) wants to move to Greece to take care of her mother, but her husband (Lawrence Frank) resists. Fat Bob (Jon Stuart Freeman) is fixated on Eleni; Rick (Ante Novakovic) has been thrown out by his wife (Amy Telsey); Tommy (Christopher David Heidt) sits around reading comic books and flirting silently with Princess (Maria Scavullo), who has disastrous luck with men. More often than not, much of this was happening at the same time, but it was all part of the complete picture, and nothing upstaged anything else - in fact, glances around made it possible to see Tommy casually retrieve his gum from under the table without having the viewer lose the thread of what was taking place center stage. The play goes on longer than it needs to, and has a brutal ending that seemed a little out of sync, but character details provided by the script (Princess's one-night stand, Rick's mournfulness, Bob's relationship with his mother) and strong acting (Freeman's Bob was both funny and viscerally frightening) carried the piece extremely well. Marcia Haufrect presided over all as a mother hen who was firm and warm (as each situation required), and Lloyd Price was humorously irascible as Abdul, the owner/cook who doesn't understand all the nonsense about Christmas. While you may not want to eat at the Surprise Diner, it's just the kind of neighborhood place that Lulu loves about New York.
Costuming and sets (both uncredited) were simple but effective (particularly the seedy diner set), as was the lighting (Abhaya Shrestha), particularly for a short circuit in Lulu's apartment. Ray Charles songs set the Surprise mood perfectly. "Crying Time" indeed.
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Copyright 2001 David Mackler