Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Three Weissmanns of Westport

She has been called the Jewish Jane Austen. She writes intelligent, witty, social satires. Her name is Cathleen Schine, and her latest, The Three Weissmanns of Westport, is a modern family saga about marriage, money, love, aging, and real estate (the themes are not necessarily addressed in that order).

The plot is this: Seventy-five year-old Betty Weissmann thought she was happily married until Joseph, her husband of forty-eight years, comes home one day and announces that he is divorcing Betty due to "irreconcilable differences." The irreconcilable difference is Felicity, Joseph's mistress, a younger woman who has designs on the couples' posh Central Park West apartment. Betty is essentially thrown out of her own home.  She moves to Westport, Connecticut, into an old, run-down beach bungalow offered by a cousin.  Betty's loyal and devoted daughters, in their 50s and with problems of their own, rush to their mother's side.

Miranda is a Type-A workaholic literary agent whose career is in crisis thanks to a James Frey-type scandal surrounding one of the authors she represents. Annie, the older sister and a mother of two grown sons, is a rather staid library director, more pragmatic and prone to worry. The three women--with vastly different personalities and quirks, strengths and weaknesses--unite against the injustice bestowed by Joseph. In a show of solidarity, the three women move into the bungalow together. While the daughters think they have come on the scene to support their mother, it is Betty who ultimately rescues her daughters from some very complicated romantic entanglements and the woes of midlife.

As always, Schine's work reflects an authentic New York-Metro area sensibility. She is a master of revealing perceptive, often hilarious, insights about her characters (see also The New Yorkers, She is Me and The Love Letter), while also weaving unexpected twists into her page-turning plots. Chapter Thirteen of The Three Weissmanns of Westport, when the three women set off to celebrate Christmas, Jewish-style, in Palm Beach, is a perfectly paced scene of farce-like proportion. It speaks to the heart (and heartbreak) of the human condition. Once again, Schine shines!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

"Restoration" by Claudia Shear

Strong, smart female characters, often outsiders . . . People longing to connect and break through so they can find their place in the world . . . These are recurrent embodiments found in the inventive work of playwright and actress, Claudia Shear.

In her one-woman show (and subsequent book), "Blown Sideways Through Life," Shear chronicled the relentless odyssey of the 64 day jobs she held while striving to become an actress. In Shear's next play, "Dirty Blonde," she posed a question: If people knew who I am, would they still love me? In this play, two lost souls--Jo and Charlie--share an obsession for Mae West, a lonely woman nobody ever really knew outside of her work on the silver screen.

In Shear's latest, "Restoration," currently in production at The New York Theater Workshop, Shear once again explores how a fervent commitment to art has the power to build bridges between people.

When "Restoration" opens, Giulia (played by Shear) is an outcast in the artistic community.  Outspoken, she has been sued because she has slandered the restoration efforts of one of her peers.  Thus, she is living a rather isolated existence as an art restorer and historian who teaches at Brooklyn College.  A mentor and former professor of Giulia's opens a door of opportunity.  Through his efforts, Giulia is selected to restore the statue of David (Michelangelo) in Florence, Italy in honor of the 500th birthday of this artistic masterpiece.

Giulia's journey, and each character she meets along the way, explores how cultivating a passion for and an appreciation of art allows a person to serve something larger than her/himself and in the process, restore a sense of purpose and self-worth. "Restoration" is beautifully written and performed. It emerges as a multi-layered love story about beauty, life, death, the redemptive power of art, and the resilient nature of humanity. Don't miss it!

Photo of Claudia Shear and Jonathan Cake from The New York Theater Workshop website