Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1999
“November”, which opened belatedly at Oldcastle on Tuesday, is a new play by a playwright who identifies himself only as J Ranelli. I assume he is a he because that is how Oldcastle referred to him in their press release, but often when people go by mysterious initials it is to conceal more than their names.
There are lots of “whys” floating around in my mind after seeing this production. The biggest of which is why did J Ranelli write it in the first place. His object seems to have been to tell the story of the middle part of this century through the experience of one family. Why? It is an awkward device, requiring the actors to change clothing and ages so fast that if you blink you lose track of what decade it is. As a critic I often take a moment to ponder what I have just seen or to mentally record what appears to be a telling line or plot turn or character trait. In doing so I managed to miss such an important piece of information that I was relegated to spending the rest of the play trying to account for what appeared to be a missing decade in this family’s life.
The family in question is headed by Henry Welles Grant (Michael Coerver) and Ruth Chalker Grant (Charlotte Hampden). Henry is dead. This is very important to note because he appears throughout the play very much alive. But he is in fact dead and the play takes place on the cold November night after his funeral in 1982 in the New England seaside home he loved. Apparently Henry was a very wealthy and influential Boston-based lawyer and politician. I think he was a Republican because President Reagan sent a note to his family on his death.
The only daughter of the family Marjorie Grant Enfield (Daryl Kenny), also a high-powered Boston lawyer, and her husband Bill (Oldcastle artistic Director Eric Peterson, who also directed this show), have arrived at the beach house along with Ruth and the family servants Vida (Marva Ray) and Gene (Robert Colston) to spend the night after the funeral. We learn that Henry and Ruth’s first child, Bobby, was killed in the Korean War when not quite out of his teens, and that Marjorie has a twin brother named David (Michael Nichols).
And then the time warp sets in. The program notes that “the times change – sometimes in a heartbeat” and it is right. This requires the actors to be able to change costumes very, very fast. And also to change ages. It is a lot easier to hire a few good dressers and change costumes. Some actors can believably recreate 16 or 25 or 45, but this play requires them to be able to recreate very specific ages (what was the difference in me between 16 and 18? I can’t remember!) very quickly and very believably so that the audience understands what the heck is going on. The dialogue helps a bit to clue you in on how old who is when and what is happening, but blink and you’re in deep trouble. Like I said, I took the luxury of pondering a point early on and lost the whole time flow.
One thing I will say for this device, clumsy and annoying as it is, it keeps you awake. “November” is not boring, neither is it a bad production badly acted. Everyone on the stage is doing their darnedest to make this thing work, and often they succeed. But the curtain falls and you are left asking “Why?” Why was the is show written, why was it produced, why is the audience supposed to care about these people, what was the point? In focusing on a century and not on a character, Ranelli lets us know his people only in those brief snatches of ever-shifting time. And they all have so many names! I can cosy up to a character identified only as Joe just as well as I can to Joseph Butler Worthington IV.
Kevin Mooney has designed a gorgeous set, as usual. The backdrop depicting the ocean view with just a small pennisula of land jutting out in to the mist on the left is lovely. Unfortunately this attractive set looks nothing like a New England beach house. It looks like the home of a wealthy Japanese family on the rural outskirts of Tokyo. The white walls and blonde wood, clean lines and sparse furnishings are more Oriental than Occidental. It looks like a house made of paper and bamboo – a house that a good New England November storm would take straight out to sea in a heartbeat. And since everyone talks about the big storm a’comin’ I was holding my breath.
Also, this family drinks a LOT. They manage to go through two decanters of something alcoholic in the course of the play. Of course, every two seconds it is a different day, time and decade, and they are having a different drink, so all that drinking doesn’t seem to affect anyone substantially. Also, what is in those decanters seems to change. Sometimes it gets poured into brandy snifters and sometimes into whiskey tumblers. No matter what, it looks exactly like the iced tea that it actually is. Someone in the props department could have added a few more drops of food coloring to make it actually look like whiskey or brandy or whatever.
I liked Kenny’s Marjorie, but I kept waiting for the character to DO something. At the end she has a line in which she says she didn’t do anything, and she’s right. It is not Kenny’s fault that Ranelli hasn’t given her character more to do, however. I also liked Nichols as the fugitive brother David. He can’t tell 16 from 6 (a pretty major difference) but he hit all the other ages well and was able to seem suddenly and remarkably older in a twinkling of the eye. I had not enjoyed Nichols in last season’s “Sweet Talk” but he impressed me here.
I found Hampden and Coerver too trite as Ruth and Henry. Peterson was a complete non-entity as Marjorie’s very peripheral husband Bill. Ranelli had given him nothing to do other than pour endless glasses of iced tea, er, whiskey. Besides, he had enough to worry about with directing a brand new play that seems to have had a difficult birth at Oldcastle. Audrey Anderson was delightful in a completely thankless role as a neighboring townie who is David’s first love/sex interest.
Ray and Colston are fine actors, but I am so sick and tired of seeing good black performers relegated to playing bit parts and servants. For one shining moment early on I thought this play might have been about a prominent black family. What a much more interesting play that would be – looking at the 20th century through the eyes of a black family who has made it than through the eyes of white folks with lots of names who have it made.
“November” runs through August 14 at the Oldcastle Theatre Company in residence at the Bennington Center for the Arts at the intersection of Route 9 and Gypsy Lane in Old Bennington, VT. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission. For tickets and information call the box office at 802-447-0564.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999