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Thursday, 09 January 2014 20:01

Off-Broadway Review: HANDLE WITH CARE Heavy on the Stereotypes

Written by
Carol Lawrence (l) and Charlotte Cohn Carol Lawrence (l) and Charlotte Cohn Photo: Doug Denoff

If the production of Handle with Care, a new play by Jason Odell Williams, is any measure, making fresh romantic comedies for the stage must be difficult. The production, an intimate affair in an appropriately intimate performance space, trods along amicably enough, but its lack of ingenuity never inspires more than an appreciation for giving the audience a warm retreat during New York City's most frigid month.

Williams, an Emmy nominee for the National Geographic Channel’s new TV series “Brain Games,” provides us with a work about fate that seems more appropriate for second-tier cable syndication. Respected director Karen Carpenter put up a show that relies solely on stereotypes in humor, language, religion, and situation as substitutes for original thinking. Although there is an improbable bit of inciting action involving a dead grandmother gone missing, the plot is an entirely guessable extended meet-cute involving Ayelet (Charlotte Cohn), a single Israeli woman whose combative nature demonstrates why she is single, and Josh (Jonathan Sale), whose wife has recently died. They meet, there is confusion involving the body of Ayelet's grandmother Edna (Carol Lawrence), and they learn something from each other. (Guess what? Life goes on and sometimes improves unexpectedly. This seems to be Williams' definition of fate.)

For their part, the performers are devoted, although it seems they are aware that the writer hasn't provided much. The show's most exasperating character, Terrence (Sheffield Chastain), is a maniacally unsuccessful delivery man (responsible for the missing dead grandma) with a spot-on southern, white-trash dialect. Chastain's face, wide and wonderful, is tasked with delivering dialogue that forces him to exaggerate every single emotion he feels, and then multiplying that emotion by one hundred. One hopes his face doesn't stick that way, so to speak.

Cohn and Sale have the thankless task of having to repeat themselves over and over in the hopes that the language barrier disappears. It doesnt. Much of the dialogue between Cohn and Lawrence consists of Lawrence trying to convince Cohn to pep-up and enjoy life and Cohn consistently shooting down that idea with eyerolls and angry retorts. Many of their scenes together feel like missed opportunities - instead of feeling intimate, they feel irksome. While speaking Hebrew, especially with Sale, Cohn seems warm and patient. With Lawrence she seems angry, and irritated. Which is it? Lawrence is unsurprisingly engaging. Carpenter has failed to provide anything resembling stage action. Lawrence provides much-needed physical excitement when she exercises in bed, letting the stage know who's the boss.

Technically, the show doesn't ask for much. The design team (scenic design, David L. Arsenault; costume design, Martin T. Lopez; lighting design, Cory Pattak; sound design, Jill BC Du Boff) nicely bring the show's low-key reality to life. The set, angled and pushed forward on the small stage, accurately brings mundane motel chic to life, with cheap brass lamps and a scratchy coverlet. Although well crafted, it's too large for the tiny space, forcing the performers to compete for stage space with a queen-size bed.

In the end, the creative team employs two questionable plot devices that detract from its potential speed, fluidity, and resonance. They've chosen, for reasons I thought I was missing but which turned out to actually be missing, to implement a timeline that alternates back and forth between two consecutive days with no wizened impact. In addition, the Israeli characters Ayelet and Edna - who are not proficient in English but who - through the magic of theatre - we only hear speaking in English except, in Cohn's case, when she is surrounded by actual English-speaking people (Then we hear her frantic Hebrew). At first this device seemed lofty and clever, like the audience was being let in on an intimate secret. Eventually, it proved questionable and cumbersome.

One additional writing choice also seemed emotionally wrong-headed. The story's two romantic leads initially seem unfocused and of questionable importance - banal and good-looking but not nearly as interesting as the secondary players of Terrence and Edna. Understanding the crux of their behavior (both have recently lost a loved one - one to life circumstance and one to death) at an earlier point in the evening would have proved enormously helpful. Until then, they both seem crotchety and dull.

When it comes to the theatrical possibilities of authentic emotion, the sooner the reveal, the better. It allows the audience to immediately participate in the emotional journey of discovery and laughter of those onstage. Unfortunately, with Handle with Care there isn't that much to discover.

Get Handle with Care Tickets

Handle with Care
Written by: Jason Odell Williams
Directed by: Karen Carpenter
Scenic design by: David L. Arsenault
Costume design: Martin T. Lopez
Lighting design by: Cory Pattak
Sound design by: Jill BC Du Boff
Starring: Carol Lawrence, Sheffield Chastain, Charlotte Cohn, Jonathan Sale

The Westside Theatre
407 West 43rd Street
Get Handle with Care Tickets

Last modified on Friday, 10 January 2014 19:50