Amazing Journey

"This 'Wintertime' is pretty but flawed"
The New Jersey Star Ledger
Wednesday, March 03, 2004
By Michael Sommers

NEW YORK -- The prettiest show in town, "Wintertime" opened Tuesday at Second Stage Theatre following several earlier appearances at top regional houses. Aside from a few actor changes, the show is the same McCarter Theatre Center production that was staged in Princeton last October (which I didn't catch).

Author Charles L. Mee usually does not write story-driven plays so much as contemporary rhapsodies upon classical themes. "Big Love" was his bride-bouncing romp with Aeschylus' 465 B.C. drama "The Suppliants."

The elegant "Wintertime" recalls Pierre Marivaux's mid-18th-century French whimsies regarding the inconstancies of romance such as "The Triumph of Love."

Designer Andrew Lieberman's stunning white-on-white set surreally depicts a country house. Modernistic white furniture is arranged amid vast blue-white banks of snow. Orange flames flickering within a glass fireplace offer the only other color. Snow flutters down intermittently, powdering the furniture and actors.

Here a piquant situation develops. Young Jonathan brings darling Ariel to his parent's country place, planning to propose. Unexpectedly he finds his mother Maria lolling about the house with her French lover Francois. Soon arrives Jonathan's dad Frank with his longtime boyfriend Edmund. Maria and Frank fondly share a design for living and the meetings are quite cordial.

Too bad that Jonathan angrily misconstrues Francois' gallantries toward Ariel. The intended engagement explodes into rancor. Soon all of the various relationships are in an uproar. Doors slam. Plates fly. Then someone apparently commits suicide and everyone's thoughts pensively turn toward mortality. After a farcical banquet, the conclusion is bittersweet.

A frequently amusing fantasia on love, "Wintertime" is composed in lyrical language. Parts of it are charming: "I think this is why there is music and painting," Ariel swoons. "Because there was love first and music is how it feels: weightless in outer space with nothing but feeling you want to cry."

The term for such sweet, delicate nothings is "marivaudage" --after Marivaux, of course -- and Mee's play conjures up a blizzard of the stuff. Like snow, which comes in changeable ways, Mee's fancy-schmancy gab alternately seems deep or insubstantial, moonstruck or bleak, delightful or just plain slushy. Whatever message accumulates melts away by the next day.

Moving the play along in stylized flurries, director David Schweizer's staging is not entirely graceful. Three characters speak in heavy accents -- two French, one Italian -- that obscures rather than spices their speeches. Most critically, actor Christopher Denham, new to the cast, makes petulant Jonathan a shrill, nasty figure instead of a sympathetic loon.

Clad in David Zinn's ultra-ultra clothes and flattered by Kevin Adams' lighting, most of the 10-member ensemble agreeably performs with their best drawing room manners.

Sporting an opulent bosom, Marsha Mason lustily sashays about as queen bee Maria. Nicholas Hormann is perfectly cast as the fraying Yankee prince Fred. Michael Cerveris's glib, twittering Francois recalls a gigolo in an old Astaire-Rogers movie. Brienin Bryant instills Ariel's arias with a sense of wonderment. Priceless as a down-to-earth neighbor, Marylouise Burke drolly cuts through the chitchat.

Anyone seeking refuge from a harsh bang-bang-bling-bling world may well find two hours of escape in the fanciful and artificial circumstances of "Wintertime."

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