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Saturday, 05 June 2010 13:21

Off-Broadway Review: GABRIEL

Written by
Lisa Emery, Samantha Soule and Lee Aaron Rosen in GABRIEL
Lisa Emery, Samantha Soule and Lee Aaron Rosen in Gabriel
Photo: Ari Mintz
Gabriel at the Atlantic Theatre Company is a riveting piece of theatre not without its deficits.  Moira Buffini's melodrama takes place in 1943 in the Channel Islands on the island of Guernnsey.  The Channel Islands were the only English islands to be captured by the Nazis during World War II.  The Becquet family, long-time residents of the island have been rounded up and removed from their customarily fine home to a shack on the edge of the island.  The Jews of the island have been removed to no one knows where.  The family consists of the mother Jeanne, played brilliantly by Lisa Emery, her ten year-old daughter Estelle played by Libby Woodbridge and her Jewish daughter-in-law Lilian played by Samantha Soule whom Jeanne has been hiding.  Her son is presumed dead in the war although Ms. Buffini only gives us vague and contradictory indications about that.

Towards the top of the play Lilian enters out of breath.  She has found a man with no clothes   washed up on the beach.  She is insisting on bringing him into the house (a crime if he isn't German).  It turns out he has no idea who he is, though he does interestingly enough speak German as well as English.  Estelle decides to name him Gabriel.

The matriarch of the family, Jeanne is forced to "entertain" one of the Nazi majors, Von Pfunz a replacement for the Nazi major before him who Jeanne was also entertaining.  Von Pfunz is played by the talented Zach Grenier who so wonderfully played Mozart in last season's 33 Variations.  One of the most engaging scenes in the entire play
Zach Grenier and Lisa Emery in GABRIEL
Zach Grenier and Lisa Emery in Gabriel
Photo: Ari Mintz
takes place early in the play and involves Jeanne's first encounter with her new Major.  They are both drunk.  She is under the impression he doesn't speak English and proceeds to unleash a torrent of insults, self-revelatory admissions and generally snide and sarcastic comments about the Nazis and the major himself.  She teaches him the incorrect words for objects in a faux attempt to teach him English and humiliate him.  In a startling moment, Von Pfunz reveals he is more than fluent in the English language.  Ms. Emery's response is so completely honest that it aids in your ability to also be shocked by the rather predictable turn of events. 

Zach Grenier is spectacular as the manipulative, contradictory major.  I wish I could say the same thing of Ms. Woodbridge as the daughter.  Her performance is robotic.  Another problem with this role has its roots in the fact that the daughter is supposed to be ten years old.  Unfortunately Woodbridge looks too old for the role, particularly given the character's childish antics. 

Patricia Connolly gives an outstanding performance as Margaret Lake, the family's housekeeper and distiller who makes the watered-down illegal liquor they sell on the black market.  Lee Aaron Rosen gives an admirable performance as Gabriel, a roll in which he is out cold for the first third of the play.

Gabriel was finely directed by David Esbjornson.  In a couple of scenes he effectively uses a contrapuntal device to stage two scenes at one time.  He does this with the aid of Scott Zielinski's attractive lighting.  Riccardo Hernandez' raked set appropriately throws the audience off balance.  At the same time Mr. Zielinski's lighting helps it to serve as multiple floors. 

The play has it's efficiencies and dramatic turns.  It also has some oddities to it with the daughter and her belief in a "square of power."  Again here, Ms. Buffini's intentions are not well served by the casting of an actress too old for the role.  Also, the love scenes between the soldier and Lilian felt like too much too soon, even if he did bear a striking resemblance to her missing husband it felt unnecessary. 

Despite the minor flaws, Gabriel is an absorbing piece of theatre finely rendered.  Gabriel plays at the Atlantic Theatre Company's Linda Gross Theater, 330 West 20th Street, Chelsea.  It runs through June 20th.

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(212) 279-4200
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.
Last modified on Friday, 18 June 2010 11:31