Saturday, October 21, 2006

Opening-night review of *Isn't It Romantic*

at the Civic’s Studio Theatre through Nov. 11

Despite all the leg warmers and hefty cordless phones (with antennas!) — despite the Members Only jackets, the women’s giant shoulder pads, and a soundtrack filled with Lauper, Bowie, Newton-John and America’s “You Can Do Magic” — Wendy Wasserstein’s *Isn’t It Romantic* hasn’t dated too badly since its revised version appeared in 1983. (The original version premiered in ’79.) Women are still trying to juggle careers, husbands and kids while defending themselves against their parents’ accusing stares.

In fact, all the Yiddish kvetching of this very New York Jewish comedy presents more obstacles for a West Coast audience in connecting with this work than does its quarter-century-old vintage. This is the story of two best friends in the Big Apple: Janie Blumberg (Rebecca McNeil) and Harriet Cornwall (Juli Wellman). Janie — schlumpy, a freelance writer, quick to fend off emotional remarks with a quick one-liner — presents quite a contrast to Harriet — a career woman like her demanding mother, always well dressed, always falling for the wrong kind of man. It’s part of this play’s charm that Janie is the one who attracts the eligible bachelor while Harriet wastes time with men who are beneath her. And yet, when it comes time to contemplate marriage — well, both these women have their self-destructive tendencies.

Though this is a production that will get better, it has noticeable problems right now. Dropped lines, long pauses, missed cues, underemphasized emotional beats — there were far too many of those on opening night, though presumably those will fall away over the course of the run as this cast gets more comfortable with the material. As if director Todd Jasmin didn’t already have his hands full with an overcrowded set and all those scene changes, costume changes and long voice-mail messages, he even had to take over one of the key roles. As Janie’s boyfriend (a nice Jewish doctor, she should be so lucky), Jasmin capably filled in for Mark Hodgson on opening weekend. In fact, Jasmin’s aw-shucks, understated demeanor worked extremely well in portraying a humble high-achiever.

Probably the biggest revelation here (to Spokane audiences, not to those in Coeur d’Alene, who already know her work) is the talent of Rebecca McNeil as Janie in the Wasserstein stand-in role. McNeil makes one of her character’s lucky breaks seem deserved, and she makes an apparently bad decision seem wise; she’s often playing off opposites in an appealing manner. McNeil overuses some gestures — hands to the forehead in shock, arms extended in pleading — and she misses how Janie uses comedy to keep people at arm’s length, but she’s got the disheveled, creative-type look down, and she’s persuasive when it comes to expressing affection toward her maddening parents and uncertain friend.

Despite the slow pace and glitches, there are already some good moments in this show. The energy level rises just before intermission during a scene cross-cut between the two apartments, with Janie’s parents playing matchmaker while their daughter frantically tries to cook a chicken and her friend starts making kissy-face with a sleazy marketing exec. The Blumbergs share a nice, genuine-seeming family hug. The shorthand-conversation closeness of the two best friends failed to come out in an opening park bench scene and later on as well, but at least there’s a nice welcome-to-your-new-apartment ritual in which Wellman (appearing for the only time in Janie’s apartment, and in casual clothes) shares genuine sisterhood with Janie.

For a revised and extended version of this review — with comments on the set, props, costumes and several of the supporting actors, and on Wasserstein’s career — pick up a copy of *The Pacific Northwest Inlander* on Thursday, Oct. 26.


At November 01, 2006 7:23 AM , Blogger KaseyRTGraham said...

This isn't the right post for this but just wanted to let you know that Jason Snow, a spokane/cda summer theatre kid, is on today. He's playing Frederick in Goodspeed's Pirates of Penzance. There's a great picture of him.


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