Amazing Journey

March 3, 2004
by William Stevenson

Charles L. Mee's Wintertime at Second Stage is as light and fluffy as the faux snow that falls before and during much of the play. Though its tone wavers and the first act goes on too long, there are some very funny sections and a few memorable comic turns in this wacky romantic farce.

The setting, strikingly designed by Andrew Lieberman, is a summer beach house in winter. The all-white indoor-outdoor set includes modern furniture, a glass-enclosed fireplace, trees and a snowy hillside. The first to arrive are the young lovers Jonathan (Christopher Denham) and Ariel (Brienin Bryant). However, Jonathan is soon surprised to learn that his Italian mother, Maria (Marsha Mason), is already there with her French lover, François (Michael Cerveris). Making things more interesting, Jonathan's father, Frank (Nicholas Hormann), and his "special friend" Edmund (T. Scott Cunningham) are also planning to stay at the house. Further complicating matters, the womanizing François has apparently slept with Ariel, and Maria has continued to sleep with Frank during her relationship with François (but only on Fridays). These revelations lead to petty arguments among all three couples.

Mee-who is clearly indebted to Marcel Ophuls' classic French film about couples having affairs, La Ronde--has even more quirky characters up his sleeve. The neighboring lesbians, Hilda (Marylouise Burke) and Bertha (Carmen de Lavallade), undoubtedly love each other but have their share of squabbles. Bertha rushes in to say that Hilda is drowning in an ice-fishing accident. Hilda turns up soon enough, though, complaining that Bertha abandoned her when she was under the ice. "What the hell is going on?" Hilda asks. "You had a tea party you had to get to?"

Also stirring things up is Jacqueline (Tina Benko), a pretty French doctor who has also had an affair with the busy François. And finally we meet Bob (Danny Mastrogiorgio), who arrives in the middle of a fracas to deliver a composter. The only problem is that it's the middle of winter and the composter is meant for another family three miles away.

Mee gives all 10 characters funny lines and farcical situations. But the play is less successful whenever one of the characters delivers a monologue about love or fidelity (or the lack thereof). The first act could use some cutting, and the act's ending--which involves the throwing of dishes and Jonathan repeatedly running into a tree--devolves into chaos.

The second act begins more somberly, and the tone seems to have shifted. But once Bob reappears, this time officiating at a funeral service, Mee's screwball dialogue starts landing laughs again. As in the first act, there's too much bickering among the lovers and family members. But that turns out to be Mee's point--that people should stop their petty arguing and appreciate the good things in their lives. The playwright wraps things up rapidly with a festive finale in which everyone reveals very colorful underwear. (It's hard to explain; you'll just have to see the play to find out why they end up half-naked.)

And speaking of stripteases, Cerveris does an uproarious one near the end of Act One. It's nearly as funny as his over-the-top French accent and emphatic gestures. Best-known for his starring roles in the musicals The Who's Tommy, Titanic and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Cerveris shows off impeccable comic timing and steals the show. Mason, who seems to be imitating Sophia Loren (or maybe Gina Lollobrigida), makes Maria vivacious and emotionally volatile. She doesn't get as many laughs as Cerveris, and her Italian accent is a bit more low-key, but she anchors the play.

In a smaller role, Burke (who was brilliant in Fuddy Meers and Kimberly Akimbo) is often hilarious. She makes the most of her silly lines, delivering them with comic flair in her indelible voice. The cast's other standout is Mastrogiorgio, who sounds a bit like George Carlin and has the expert timing of a first-rate stand-up comedian. Benko also has a number of funny moments as Jacqueline, though her French accent isn't quite as formidable as Cerveris'. Cunningham's hapless Edmund is amusing too, while Hormann's Frank contains a hint of sadness.

Director David Schweizer keeps the antic action moving along briskly, David Zinn gets credit for the colorful costumes (especially the sparkly underwear), and Kevin Adams designed the attractive lighting. Eric Shim did the sound design, which incorporates passages from various passionate operas. Along with Paul Rudnick's Valhalla and Terrence McNally's The Stendhal Syndrome, Wintertime is part of this season's off-Broadway operatic revival.

Opening during an unseasonably spring-like early March, Mee's comedy isn't a model of playwriting construction and doesn't always sustain its farcical tempo. But the playwright, director, and terrific cast do provide plenty of laughs, which should help get us through the final weeks of winter.

By Charles L. Mee
Directed by David Schweizer
Second Stage Theatre


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