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Paulanne Simmons

"Toys in the Attic" Is Masterful But Mild

Ivy Vahanian and Sean McNall. Photo by Joan Marcus

"Toys in the Attic"
Directed by Austin Pendleton
The Pearl Theatre Company
80 St. Marks Place at 1st Ave.
Opened Jan. 5, 2007
Tues. 7 p.m., Thurs. thru Sat. 8 p.m. Wed., Sat. & Sun. matinees 2 p.m.
$40 & $50 (212) 598-9802 or www.pearltheatre.org
Closes Feb. 18, 2007
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Jan. 16, 2007

Lillian Hellman has been called a "second Ibsen" and "the American Strindberg," thanks to her penchant for dramatic confrontations between troubled individuals. But in her 1960 play, "Toys in the Attic," she turns to warmer climes than these two playwrights were used to for her inspiration, the New Orleans of her youth.

"Toys in the Attic" was Hellman's last major play. It was presented at Broadway's Hudson Theatre and featured Maureen Stapleton and Jason Robards, Jr. in the starring roles. The play won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.

Taking on a play with such a history is not always easy. But the Pearl Theatre Company acquits itself admirably under the direction of Austin Pendleton, who breathes life into the old warhorse and takes it from an easy walk to a brisk trot.

"Toys in the Attic" presents 24 hours in the life of a New Orleans family, the proud and poor Berniers. Anna (Robin Leslie Brown) is the elder, wiser and more cynical sister. Carrie (Rachel Botchan) is younger and seemingly more innocent, until it becomes apparent that she harbors a not very sisterly longing for her brother Julian (Sean McNall).

Julian has been supported and sustained by his two sisters for most of his ne'er-do-well life. Then one day he comes home loaded with money and his sexy but not too bright wife, Lily (Ivy Vahanian) in tow. He won't tell anyone how he got the money, but Lily suspects it has something to do with a mysterious woman he sees regularly and secretly.

Lily's rich and eccentric mother Albertine Prine (Joanne Camp) and her black chauffeur "fancy man" (Robert Colston) try to give her sound advice, which she ignores, precipitating the kind of disaster so much Southern Gothic eventually leads to.

Brown's resigned Anna, dripping with sweat and exhaustion sets the tone of the play in the very first scene. Brown's performance is infused with a world-weary pain that contrasts most effectively with McNall's boyish exuberance.

Camp gives Albertine a combination of awkwardness, sly wisdom and sincerity that makes one think Albertine is indeed Hellman's spokesperson. Not surprisingly, no one listens.

But the pivotal character in the play is Carrie, who, unlike Anna, is unwilling to accept her brother's good fortune. Botchan scowls and accuses with admirable intensity. But she does not project the kind of stifled sexual energy the role requires. Hellman clearly implies that the relationship between Carrie and Julian may have been incestuous in some way, but Botchan makes any real physicality seem almost impossible.

"Toys in the Attic" has many fine moments, especially when Brown and Camp come on stage. And McNall's enthusiasm gives the production a shot of adrenaline. But it needs Botchan to give it the repressed sexuality that leads to the tragedy.

Despite its name, "Toys in the Attic" is not a play for children. But this production has little about it that would make it PG anything.



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