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by Lucy Komisar

Photo from 'Night and Day'
Angela Madden and Jolie Garrett in Tom Stoppard's "Night and Day."
Contents: March 4, 2001:
(1)"Night and Day"
(2)"Paradise Island"
(3)"The Wax"

"Night and Day"
by Tom Stoppard, directed by Ernest Johns
Produced by Jean Cocteau Repertory
Bouwerie Lane Theatre, 330 Bowery
Opened December 17, 2000
Closes March 22, 2001
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar January 5, 2001
Tom Stoppard has the amazing ability to be clever, funny, political, arcane and entertaining at multiple levels to multiple audiences who would never nod to each other on the street.

To comprehend the subplot about "the Trots" who are running the union at The Globe, a venerable British daily, you have to be British or at least a subset of 1960's American. (It means Trotskyist.) To relate to a bored colonial wife who'd like to bed every new man in sight, it's enough to be breathing.

In the midst of all of that esoteric politics, "Night and Day" puts forth the radical notion that, as rotten as much of the press is, especially the gutter variety, it's better than the alternative.

We are in the new African country of Kambawe where the local paper at independence was owned by a British millionaire who filled it with girly pictures. What is the alternative? The president of Kambawe describes that as "a relatively free press" -- one that is run by one of his relatives. The contrast is posed by a fresh-faced, young reporter who believes that a free press is the protector of liberty.

That's getting ahead of the story, which in the case of Stoppard would be a pity, since it is rich fare, indeed. In 1978, a rebellion is being mounted in the African country of Kambawe, which is run by President Mageeba, brilliantly portrayed by Jolie Garrett as a tough, charming, brutal, literate, musical-comedy sort of thug who went to the LSE (ah, the inside Brits again: the London School of Economics) and knows when to brandish bright words and when to use his walking stick.

Richard Wagner (Jason Crowl) has arrived "in country" for The Globe, only to find that Jacob Milne (Taylor Bowyer) a British freelancer, has scooped everyone with an interview with the rebel leader. And published his story in The Globe!

Those two and the paper's photographer (Tim Deak) descend on the household of Geoffrey Carson (Harris Berlinsky), a mining engineer who has befriended Jacob. Carson, who deals with all political sides, is worried about his mines and is transmitting messages between the conflicting parties. This provides an opening for Wagner, who will do anything for the next scoop.

Director Ernest Johns has mounted an ironic, lively production with Robert Martin's excellent set, a living room with slate floor, white sofas, lush green plants, louver doors, and African masks and statue.

There's lots of clever repartee. The government flack announces that the Adona Liberation Front doesn't exist and the army has got it completely surrounded. Then, he asks if The Globe is "objective for" or "objective against." As he says, he may be stupid, but he's not stupid. Newsweek, in a funny parody, is aptly described as "all writing and no facts."

The most interesting character is the correspondent, given a meaty portrayal by Jason Crowl, who is the perfect journalistic charmer -- nasty, jealous, cynical, manipulative. Jacob, the naive young provincial, is actually the hero. Speaking for Stoppard, he preaches that newspapers' celebration of nonsense, their "hackneyed melodramas," is the price you pay for the part that matters.

Stoppard's weakest character is Ruth, the wife, a caricature of the bored, sexual predator who will sleep with anything that moves. In 1978, Stoppard should have been more sophisticated about women. Angela Madden, however, gives a complex performance, including a witty send-up of Elizabeth Taylor.

Stoppard's lines are icing on this cake. Calling the reporter Strauss instead of Wagner, Ruth declares, "I knew it was Richard." When Wagner asks, "What do I call him, the president?", she replies, "He likes to be called boy." The gun-toting chief of state is described as having played Othello. It will be revealed he played Caliban, but hey, how many parts in Shakespeare are there for blacks?

In addition to fine performances by Crowl, Madden, Garrett and Bowyer, Max Wolkowitz does a nice turn as the preppie kid from Ascot.

"Paradise Island"
by Simon Block, directed by Michael Sexton
Produced by MCC Theater
120 West 28 Street
Opened January 23, 2001
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar January 24, 2001
"Paradise Island" is a fascinating, beautifully acted, two-person play that plumbs the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship which descends into mutual backbiting when a mother can't deal with disappointment at her daughter's failure to find a good man or a good job.

Playwright Benjie Aerenson gives the appearance of having seen such goings-on up close. His dialogue and the direction by Andy Goldberg are completely natural.

Emma, expertly portrayed by Lynn Cohen, is a well-meaning mother who can't figure out why her daughter doesn't shine, and Terri, finely drawn by Adrienne Shelly, seems defeated by life and beyond explaining it to her mother. Theyare on a Bahamas gambling holiday, and from the hotel room, to the restaurant, to the beach, to the casino, every moment is filled with tension.

The hypercritical Emma fuels her daughter's misery. Even her compliments are backhanded. Terri, 32, has had a series of dead-end jobs. Emma, a woman in her 60's with a husband and house in Miami, reassures her, "You're so pretty" and "You've got so much to offer." Then a dig, "You don't like the nice ones, that's your problem; you go for the creeps."

Unable to communicate, they lash out at each other. Emma criticizes Terri's clothes, her hair, how she leaves the room a mess, even her misplacing the VCR remote. Terri ripostes with spite and an almost defiant self-destructiveness. A diabetic, she sneaks candy and cake.

They talk with warmth only about people who live outside their lives on daytime television. Terri likes Oprah because she "really cares about people." They discuss Cher and the characters in the O.J. trial. One rejoices when the other wins at the slot machines.

It's clear that behind all the unkind remarks, there is love. When Terri tries on a spaghetti strap sundress in the resort shop, Emma looks at her with real delight and pride. When she muses to herself about Terri as "the baby all the nurses loved," you feel the contradictory emotions of her love and her wrenching disappointment.

"The Wax"
by Kathleen Tolan, directed by Brian Kulick
Produced by Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42 Street
Opened January 7, 2001
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar January 9, 2001
NEW YORK - Kathleen Tolan's new play is a combination of good sketch comedy and slapstick. Though the premise is not terribly remarkable, the play is laced with funny bits, including the modern version of classical pretension -- a lot of academic, psychological and cultural pseudo-discourse. And after hundreds of years, audiences still chuckle at deceiving husbands and wives slamming in and out of doors or hiding under beds and in closets.

The production is enhanced by some excellent comedians, including Laura Esterman as a dumped wife and Mary Testa as a bored one. Director Brian Kulick correctly plays the script as a classical farce. The result is that you laugh a lot.

The plot is the least of it: a bunch of old friends have met at a seaside hotel prior to the wedding of a couple we never see. What we do see raises some questions about the vigor of marriage, which has left them all in some way dissatisfied. The unhappy partners see sex as both the problem and the solution. Tolan subtly suggests that that's not as essential as communication. Or that the latter problem obviously affects the former.

One husband and wife can't communicate and aren't sleeping together. Another couple has split, with the male ending up with a boyfriend. A housewife-and-mother wants "some fun," which she, for no obvious reason, interprets as a lesbian affair. The wild cards are a self-analyzing scientist (female) and a sensitive redneck (male), who seem wistfully looking for human connections.

None of this is meant to be taken too seriously. It's done mostly for laugh lines and slapstick disrobing. Does Kate (Karen Young) have a marriage in trouble? She needs an affair while they're working it out. Is Angie (Mary Testa) coming on to Kate? Her own marriage suffers from DINS; "dual income, no sex." Is Maureen (the enormously comic Laura Esterman) furious at the expose novel published by her estranged husband, Hal (David Greenspan)? It's because she's not in it.

The two still have an unspoken connection: Maureen has the delicious habit, when she is distraught, of tuning into grand opera on the boom box she totes. Hal has charming moments of imitating the notes of emotionally resonant pieces of music.

The hotel room of Kate and Christopher (Frank Wood) becomes the stage for the arrivals, departures and antics of the wedding guests and visitors. In addition to the above, they include Bert (Gareth Saxe) the very funny black leather-jacketed, flaky fellow Kate picks up at the bar, and Amelia (Mary Shultz), a sweet, quirky, non-stop-talking scientist who analyzes thoughts and feelings as she would molecules in a lab.

The best parts are the furious, comic encounters where various parties reveal their emotional desires and despair. Yes, it's been done before, and every moment doesn't sparkle, but hands coming up from under to grab objects on the bed or a character hiding in a closet that is already inhabited still set you giggling.

The play bogs down with a story narrated by Ben (David Greenspan), Hal's music critic lover, whose tedious reminiscence of how he and Hal met seems to take as long as the event itself. Ben is cleverer when he sticks to telling how British class divisions promote critical faculties and artistry or parsing Irish plays as built on "the drunken sods" and "the sentimental detours."

Wood is funny as the mild, dry, dull, methodical scientist who suddenly scales cultural heights when he declares, on hearing his wife use a metaphor from "Wozzeck," that he's "the misunderstood Marie who loved you."

The "wax" refers to the substance used by a Russian lady (Lola Pashalinski) who arrives to clean up Kate's bikini line. Stripping away harsh reality or dramatizing the closeness of pain and sex? It's so bizarre, that even when you flinch, you can't help laughing. who did the photo, you or Dixie Sheridan? Teaser: Bizarre Off-Broadway comedies: A revival of Tom Stoppard's "Night and Day" in which a self-important British press confronts an African rebellion; and quirky newcomers Simon Block's "Paradise Island," about mothers' and daughters' expectations and disappointments; and Kathleen Tolan's "The Wax," which rips the comical truth off marriage. [Komisar]

Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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