Love With Strings

Strong casting and attractive characters lead Invisible Theatre's 'Natives' to success

Our heroine is turning 50. She's divorced; her daughters have grown up and gone off on their own adventures; she's got tenure; she's free and more or less secure: It's time for an adventure of her own.

She arranges to sublet her apartment and run off to Provence for a summer of novel-writing, wine-swilling, hill-hiking and whatever else may come.

What comes, though, is one daughter after another, returning home in crisis. My marriage is ending! My wedding is off! I'm having an affair with a bisexual sultan from Bali! I'm a lesbian!

It's the return of the natives who, disregarding Thomas Wolfe, believe they can come home again.

Our heroine's predicament--whether to stay home and coddle her daughters, or set off on her own journey--is the subject of the new Janet Neipris comedy Natives, on stage at Invisible Theatre. It's a gently funny play, consistently amusing without being stuffed with ha-ha one-liners. If, ultimately, the stakes don't seem that high--clearly, the girls could find a way to take care of themselves or each other without tying down their mother--the production succeeds through its strong casting and attractive characters.

The mother is named Viola, "after an instrument in the New York Philharmonic." Specifically, she'd been conceived after her parents had heard a Vivaldi viola concerto. Now, Viola doesn't mention this, but Vivaldi wrote for an odd instrument called the viola d'amore, which had an extra set of strings mounted underneath the conventional four; although they were never touched, they'd resonate sympathetically with the strings that were actually being bowed. Our Viola may be full of amore, but if her daughters represent the extra strings, they're not resonating all that sympathetically with Viola's melody. And, come to think of it, who's really playing whom?

The action takes place in Viola's living room, nicely appointed with African and Asian artifacts, classic novels, books about food and wine and foreign places, and the inevitable neat stack of National Geographic magazines. (James Blair and Susan Claassen share the set-design credit.) But does this room reflect who Viola truly is? The artifacts have been shipped home by daughter Emily, who trots around the globe studying folk customs and indulging in unlikely affairs. The food books, one suspects, have something to do with daughter Bo, who, with her husband, Gary, writes about food for a living, even though she no longer likes food, and is having doubts about Gary, too. The third and youngest daughter, Joanna, has a conventional and successful career in finance, but--to Viola's shock--her imminent wedding will be neither conventional nor successful.

They all come sulking home to Mom, towing along the men who remain in their lives: Bo's Gary, and Emily's paramour, a Balinese sultan who's actually a nice bisexual Jewish boy from the Bronx. According to Viola, they think that by coming home, they're returning to their roots, but from her point of view, it's more like a root canal.

The daughters haven't shared full information with Viola, but Viola has a secret of her own: Avery, the surprising man in her life. Or at least partly in her life. The extent of his commitment is open to question.

Neipris gives us real characters here, not just joke-spewing types, and with her help and that of the wise director, Gail Fitzhugh, the four actresses at the center of the play work especially well off each other.

As Viola, we have Claassen, whose focused energy and strong personality can make her a larger-than-life figure onstage. Here, she's as pointed as ever (particularly when she keeps her mouth shut and just looks at another actor, or the audience), but she channels her delivery into the wry neurotic-intellectual cadences of Woody Allen. She's always a Presence--after all, she's playing a Jewish mother--but not so much that she crowds her fellow performers off the stage.

The daughters, played by Jillian Courtney, Natalie Sutherland and Dallas Thomas, are not required to pass the play's two hours in the fits of hysteria that too often masquerade as comedy. True, there's some weeping, and some offstage vomiting (always with proper motivation), but they actually get to interact with each other in interesting, complicated ways. Their conversations are full of competitive bickering, but it's loving bickering. They may believe that they've been brought up to be rather strange women, but the relationships are clearly strong and positive, no matter what kind of nuttiness is happening in their lives at the moment.

Neipris has given her male characters less to do; consequently, they're less fleshed out, and Avery in particular (the appealing Burney Starks) is rather inscrutable. Eddie Young does well with the role of Gary, making him smug but not a complete asshole. Alex Garday is especially good as the Bronx/Balinese sultan, playing him as a sincere young man who believes himself to be perfectly normal; this is much funnier than if he'd opted for caricature. Luckily, that's the choice made all the way through this entertaining production.

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