A Time for Love and Romance

J.C. Cutler and Stephen Anthony chat about that relationship thing in the Pavilion

Early on in Florida Stage's The Pavilion, the narrator looks out at the audience and declares, "This is a play about time." Normally such an audacious statement might undercut the play's actual content, but The Pavilion delves into the concepts of time, memory, and perception so thoroughly, and often eloquently, that the opening thesis becomes a helpful guidepost for the audience's journey.

The Pavilion is the story of two adults returning to their youth and their first significant romantic relationship. The vehicle for this encounter is a mainstay of American culture: the high school class reunion. Kari (Kimberly Kay) and Peter (Stephen G. Anthony) were named "cutest couple" at Pine City High School, but their relationship ended prematurely and abruptly when Peter went off to college. The breakup gradually is revealed in greater detail throughout the play. Now, twenty years later, they arrive separately to their class reunion. Peter totes both flowers and the hope that he will be able to reconcile with Kari, who is still bitter and wants nothing to do with him. In a series of dialogues ranging from humorous to confrontational, The Pavilion traces Kari and Peter's encounter with the past and the profound effect it has had on their lives.

Author Craig Wright wisely avoids the temptation to populate The Pavilion with a large cast of overweight ex-cheerleaders and star-quarterbacks-turned-shoe salesmen. Ingeniously he uses a narrator (J.C. Cutler) to structure the play and to portray a motley crew of fellow graduates from the class of '81. Given that only two characters assume the dramatic weight of the piece, it is a largely dialogue-driven play. That said The Pavilion does have a poetic and philosophical element, which is filtered through the narrator's role. The narrator speculates on the stars, the universe, and the constellations with a poetic tone that complements the unmistakably realistic scenario at hand. At times these monologues get a bit unwieldy and lengthy; consequently they lose some of their power. Wright also has written in some unnecessarily cutesy moments, in which the narrator acts as a surrogate God. He interrupts his own meanderings to call out: "Hey, can we get some stars here?" and poof! the backdrop lights up. Fortunately such moments are infrequent.

Anthony, who recently played the simultaneously endearing and arrogant adulterer in GableStage's The Real Thing, has an ease onstage that I have seen in few other South Florida leading men. Playing the repentant ex-boyfriend now grown into a self-flagellating man, he wins over the audience with his sincerity and honesty. But Peter also has backbone and passion. Wright's script is a venture into memory; for Peter memory doesn't just mean riding on the coattails of Kari's version of their relationship. He has his own interpretation, and, as the intuitive actor he is, Anthony doesn't show his whole hand right away; instead he lets the richness of his character emerge gradually, from hesitant and somewhat awkward to passionate.

Kay's character is not quite as deftly revealed as Anthony's. She enters the play angry and stays that way until very late. True, she has more to be angry about, but her emotionality is a bit static and not entirely believable, particularly in the first half of the first act. Kari stands rigidly and assaults Peter with a litany of bitter wisecracks. When Peter apologizes, she retorts, "Sorry is not a word. Sorry is just a noise people make when nothing else can happen." This goes on pretty much throughout the first half of the play. It's hard to believe anyone shows up at their high school reunion that pissed off. Director Louis Tyrrell could guide Kay a bit more to taper her anger in the beginning so that it corresponds with what we know about her relationship with Peter.

As we find out more about their relationship at the end of the first act and beginning of the second, Kay seems more grounded; as Act Two progresses, both she and Anthony hit an incredible stride, creating a chemistry onstage that, for all the potentially cliched romanticism contained in the plot, rings surprisingly and gratifyingly human.

Cutler is excellent as he morphs into myriad classmates attending the reunion. He has a keen sense of the space and movement and creates the sensation of disappearing and reappearing without ever exiting the stage. He also possesses the vocal range and interpretive skill this role demands, portraying some fifteen characters. His shape-shifting often adds an element of comedy to the play and helps maintain a balance between Kari and Peter's interpersonal drama and the social phenomenon that surrounds them.

As a structure that both shelters and adorns, The Pavilion is a stunning metaphor for this couple's moving encounter with memory. Rather than thrashing about in an infinite sea of memory and perception, Kari and Peter form a new relationship through their exploration of the past, reminding us that even as we are reliving memories, we are making new ones. As the narrator muses: "Do we become by forgetting or by remembering the past?"

The play's answer to this riddle may surprise you.

Wendy Wasserstein's character-driven scripts and kosher wisecracks usually make for lively theater. A very structured writer, she crafts her plays with little dead weight or distracting abstraction.

Isn't It Romantic? is a typically straightforward offering as evidenced by the set design of the Broward County Main Library's 300-seat theater, which looks as if it could be the scene for an updated female version of The Odd Couple. Stage right houses a slovenly display of papers, milk crates, and food wrappers strewn about. Stage left is minimally and tastefully decorated with a contemporary loveseat and glass-top table. Meet Janie Blumberg (Maurine Burdine) and college buddy Harriet Cornwall (Carolyn H. Morse). They both have moved back to the Big Apple to begin the next chapter in their adult lives. Harriet has landed a prestigious job as a business executive at Colgate-Palmolive, and Janie is an aspiring freelance writer.

This a mid-Eighties comedy that falls somewhere between Gloria Steinem and Camille Paglia on the feminist continuum, and somewhere between The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Sex in the City on the sitcom spectrum, asking as it does the by now infinitely boring question: Can women have it all? A happy family, successful career, healthy kids, good sex, and time for volunteer work? Yawn.

In fact the Fort Lauderdale Players' version of Isn't It Romantic? feels quite dated -- and not just because of the script. The actors have not created characters real enough for us to believe in. While they kvetch, commiserate, and conspire, something doesn't ring true. With the exception of Ed Berliner and Deborah Whitebrook, who pull off passable performances as Harriet's lover and mother, respectively, this troupe is amateurish. The actors obviously are self-conscious onstage and seem to be more focused on speaking from their diaphragms than conveying a variety of emotions.

The timing is unnatural and awkward in almost all the dialogues. In one supposedly tense scene between Janie and her boyfriend, Marty (Jeff Marvin), the two look like cardboard cutouts with thought balloons floating over their heads. Likewise there's little body language and movement among the cast members, even as they discuss emotionally charged topics. These kind of flaws point to a dictatorial directing hand at work behind the scenes. Perhaps director Angela Thomas should let this cast take a few more risks and not cling so tightly to the script. The subtleties that exist within the characters of Janie and Harriet are squashed by the static acting. We should be able to expect more from community theater than memorized lines (and even that was not always the case here) and an audible performance. This troupe could do more with this material if its members loosened up a bit.

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