Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 2001

Whoever decided to bill Panache as a screwball comedy has done Oldcastle a great disservice. Although I am hard pressed to come up with a category into which the show fits, I am sure that it is NOT screwball comedy. In fact, I have seldom laughed so little at a play where I basically liked the characters. This is probably because playwright Don Gordon can’t write comedy, or maybe because he can’t write at all.

Gordon has created two interesting people – artist Harry Baldwin (Victor Barbella) and Scarsdale socialite Kathleen Trafalgar (Daryl Kenny) – and he wants to bring them together. Indeed they belong together. It is refreshing to see two adults (both characters are in their forties) who form a friendship, a relationship, and a grand love affair, without sex. Kathleen is married to an absentee corporate executive, and Harry is still mourning his wife of 12 years who died of cancer. Kathleen bore a son before she was married who drowned at the age of eleven. While Harry and Kathleen are attracted to each other physically, their immediate needs are for companionship, sympathy, and, that most under-rated in commodity in adult relationships, fun.

Does that all sound interesting? Two mature people from different backgrounds who find solace together. It is. Now, will someone please call a real playwright and have him or her write it? I think A.R. Gurney could really make something of this.

If Harry and Kathleen met in an art gallery, at the diner where he flips burgers to pay the rent, or on the golf course (she likes to play, he likes to caddy), I could buy it. It is real life that brings real people together. But Gordon contrives to have them meet when Kathleen barges into Harry’s squalid Brooklyn tenement (I think he inherited the lease directly from Ralph and Alice Kramden) demanding that he give or sell her the rights to his vanity license plate which reads “Panache.” Why would a starving artist living in Brooklyn even own a car, let alone spring for vanity plates? And since when would a Scarsdale socialite rise life and limb entering a stranger’s apartment in a slum? Kathleen claims that her husband is the epitome of panache because of some recent escapades at a charity costume ball. Harry claims he has panache because of a good deed he did for a nerdy friend in college. Who cares?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines panache as “dash and flamboyance in style and action.” We never get to see Kathleen’s husband, but Harry is on stage continually and his charms have to do with his warmth and loyalty – there is nothing dashing or flamboyant about him. I cannot think why the word even entered Gordon’s head unless he found it in the Wordly Wise section of The Reader’s Digest while sitting on the john one morning and thought it would make a swell title for a play.

Without Victor Barbella on the stage there would be no reason not to get up and walk out at intermission. Barbella is absolutely real and believable as Harry. He is not afraid, as many actors are, to let himself look less than perfect on stage. His clothing, his housekeeping, his attire, his stance, his way of talking all convey a man who is so consumed with grief that he has lost his soul. As his relationship with Kathleen grows he begins to open himself up to her, but not entirely. You just want to pick up Barbella’s Harry and carry him home for a nice bowl of soup and some good home cooking.

Daryl Kenny is woefully miscast as Kathleen. There is MUCH more to being a Scarsdale socialite than wearing the right clothes. Some of my best friends have been born and raised in Kathleen’s world, and Kenny’s attempt at portaying this woman and that world are way off base. Her one effective moment is her monologue describing the death of Kathleen’s son. I know that Kenny is the mother of boys, as am I, and I can see how much easier it would be to inhabit that place in a woman’s soul than to grasp a whole way of life that is alien to you.

Panache has a thankfully short two-week run at Oldcastle. I heard that their seaon opener Civil Union was a troubled show. I sincerely wish them much better luck with their next two productions, both musicals. I look forward to seeing much larger audiences at Oldcastle soon, but the company needs to ante up by selecting scripts worthy of audience attention and the investment of their admission dollars.

Panche runs through July 8 at the Oldcastle Theatre Company (802-447-0564), housed at the Bennington Center for the Arts at the junction of VT Rt. 9 and Gypsy Lane in Bennington. The show runs about two hours with one intermission. There are some mild curse words and some discussion of sex, but nothing shocking.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2001

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