Uh oh. When I learn that a screenwriter has just written a play, I usually look for a place to hide. Many, no, most successful writers fall into the trap of hubris: If they thrive in one medium, they assume they will triumph in all. The result is often abysmal. Trust me, you wouldn't want to watch a play by Mark Twain or Dickens, and most sitcom writers produce stage work that comes across like -- surprise -- sitcoms.
Not so with Jeffrey Hatcher, one of those rare writers who has found success across a range of media -- film to television to stage. As evidence, I present to the court Hatcher's Mercy of a Storm, a rich, wise, and witty play now running at Florida Stage in Manalapan. In Mercy, Hatcher zeroes in on one stormy, snowy night, New Year's Eve 1945; one locale, a country club in northeastern Ohio; and two characters, George and Zanovia Holmberg, a couple who are a whole lot better at romance than marriage. George is a prosperous insurance magnate, a WASP widower in his late 50s. Zanovia is decades younger, a tough-talking, gin-swilling Polish Catholic from a blue-collar family. After a year of marriage, George wants out, partially because of pressure from his grown daddy's-girl daughter, partially for reasons he keeps to himself. Zan, in response, is angry but still deeply in love. While a high-spirited New Year's Eve party rollicks on in the clubhouse ballroom, George has asked Zan to slip away to meet in the club's secluded pool house. Thus begins a deeply romantic, sometimes heart-breaking tango of bitterness and desire. Mercy looks at two basic American preoccupations, the institution of marriage and the ever-present pressures of class and status. Though passion drove George and Zan together, the invidious riptide of class resentments has pulled them apart. For the Holmbergs, marriage is a kind of combat zone (it's no coincidence that this marriage ends just as World War II does). When George makes Zan a settlement offer he considers more than generous, he explains by referencing the rules of war: "You don't kill the wounded, and you don't bomb what you may need later."
Much of the pleasure from this production comes from the writing, of course. From the first sequence, the script is carefully constructed, setting up a series of audience assumptions that is reversed by new information. Hatcher not only creates two compelling, resonant characters in Zanovia and George but an almost equally vivid troupe of off-stage characters -- and manages all while observing the classic Aristotelian dictum of continuous time (10 p.m. to midnight) and place. This sort of two-hander places an enormous burden on its tiny cast. Steve Hendrickson looks a decade too young for the role of George, but he brings a wide range of emotional colorations. Decked out in black tie and a Ronald Reagan pompadour, Hendrickson plays George as a thoroughly conventional man who struggles, and increasingly fails, to keep a tight rein on his deepest feelings. In this, Hendrickson is effective. When George moves from awkwardness to anger to passion, Hendrickson doesn't just hit those three big points; he goes through a dozen others in jagged, abrupt succession, like a series of exploding Chinese firecrackers. Carolyn Pool's Zanovia, the platinum-blond tough gal with a broken heart, brings a dancer's grace and a keen sense of Zan's working-class back-story. But Pool doesn't bring much subtextual detail, and her emotional range seems pretty much locked between sarcasm and anger.
Hendrickson and Pool strike romantic sparks at times, and when they do, the result is lovely. Still, the production seems to miss some of the emotional challenges of the material, and much of this must be laid to director Michael Bigelow Dixon, who has staged his actors carefully, perhaps overly so. There's plenty of craft here -- every plot point is clearly established -- but very little danger, suspense, or surprise, except when the script delivers it. When unpredictability arises, the production crackles with energy, but Dixon particularly fails to find ways to deliver two events, at the end of both acts, in ways that might generate more surprise. In both situations, the audience knows what will happen and, when it does, there's no payoff. Dixon hasn't figured out how to play on those expectations, offering temporary reversals and then delivering the expected in unexpected ways. As a result, there's a certain predictability and distance to this production; the audience is ahead of the story.
As usual for Florida Stage, the production design is carefully detailed. Allen D. Cornell's nautical-styled pool house is awash in marine colors, nicely setting the mood and the historical period ably abetted by Jim Fulton's gold-hued, nuanced lighting. Matt Brigandi Kelly's sound design conjures up the unseen world of the gala event in the off-stage clubhouse, a critical aspect of the story. But as is most unusual for Florida Stage, this production suffers from curious lapses in judgment. Mercy of a Storm is set during a bitter, blinding blizzard, but the brief glimpses of falling snow reveal weather far softer than what both the sound design and the text indicate. The story also requires the playback of some recorded voices that sound less than authentic, as well as a brief appearance of two partygoers walking past the pool house window in shadow. This is effected by one person obviously carrying a dummy, a cost saving that's penny-wise, pound-foolish.
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