There's a scene in the final act of Joshua Williams' new romantic comedy, Valentine at Bellevue, when the six characters, all drinking heavily at a dinner party, have finished eating and are engaged wholeheartedly in a game of charades. As a significant part of the audience joins happily in the laughter, you might feel like the outsider who finds himself at a party where he either doesn't know anybody or doesn't belong to the "in" group or is the only non-drinker in a heavy-partying crowd. Actually, that's the way you might feel throughout much of the evening.
Mr. Williams, a Princeton University senior, has brought together all the necessary ingredients: six witty, sophisticated, quirky characters; a contemporary Valentine's Day dinner setting in a New York City apartment; and a potentially rich entanglement of relationships, with the characters, five of them in their twenties plus the middle-aged mother of the party host, all looking for love.
The set-up is promising and the dramatic premise has potential for both humor and exploration of deeper, more serious issues. Unfortunately, neither the comedy nor the six characters develop very much. The ensemble interacts energetically, but no single character or relationship comes into sharp and convincing focus. There is not much at stake in the mating rituals and romantic pairing up of these characters. It is difficult for the audience to care much about these one-dimensional figures or at least it was for me, though many in the audience laughed loudly and seemed enthusiastically drawn in throughout the 90-minute performance last Friday night.
The focal point of the play is Miles (Stephen Strenio), a gay young actor who is planning to become a professional wrestler. First to arrive at his Valentine's Day dinner party is his mother Sophia (Christine Murphy), a soap opera actress on Days of Our Lives, in a frenzy ("They pay me to emote.") over her son's career change. David (Shawn Fennell), Miles' agent, a recent convert to Judaism with a penchant for Jewish jokes and older women, appears next, followed by Mark (Yu Gan), Miles' old college roommate, who has become a sociology professor at Columbia, and his girlfriend Lily (Alexis Morgan), a medical student. Ruben (Kut Akdogan), a dancer with the New York City Ballet, secretly invited by Sophia as a Valentine's date for her son, completes the company.
"Valentine at Bellevue" will play March 1-3 at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 2 and 8 p.m. on Saturday. Call (609) 258-5155 or visit www.theatreintime.org for information.
As the evening wears on, the action, under the skillful direction of Whitney Mosery, takes full advantage of the three-part, well-appointed sitting room, dining room, bathroom set. Miles struggles offstage in the kitchen with his duck a l'orange recipe. David moves in on Sophia. Mark, a master of absurdist dialogue, rants against Hallmark cards and the commercialization of Valentine's Day, while Lily, locked in the bathroom, carries on intense cell phone conversations with her friend Bridget.
The drama and comedy come to a head in the third of three acts, as Mark takes center stage and presides over a wild, drunken after-dinner game of charades, characterized by frequent "Ninja" allusions and more witty repartee, before the characters all pair up and the play ends on a touching, romantic note.
Curiously enough, amidst this eccentric ensemble, the character who rings most truly and appealingly is the most conventional (despite her cell phone with the Batman theme ring tone) of the group, Ms. Morgan's Lily. Her unaffected, forthright style gives her credibility and authority, as she complains to her boy friend about having to come to this strange dinner party instead of going out on a more conventional Valentine's Day date.
Ms. Murphy as the theatrical Sophia doesn't quite pull off the 30-year age stretch to convince us that she is Miles' mother, but she otherwise handles proficiently the character's lively dialogue and changing moods. Mr. Strenio, the main character, needs more exposition and three-dimensionality, as does Mr. Akdogan in the role of Miles' suave surprise date.
Mr. Yu's professorial demeanor is appropriately witty and glib for the lively Professor Mark Han, "an alternate dimension sort of person," who is proud of his seminar on Star Wars and intergalactic communication, though the humor in this central comedic part is uneven. Mr. Fennell plays the amorous theatrical agent with energy, but occasional excesses undermine credibility and threaten to turn the character into a caricature.
Production values in Valentine are consistently high, with recent Princeton University graduates Devon Wessman-Smerdon and Scott Grzenczyk collaborating effectively on the sleek set design, which is professionally and appropriately lit by Christopher Gorzelnik.
In the playwright's note in the program, Mr. Williams states, "Valentine at Bellevue is essentially a mash-up of six of the funniest people that have been loitering in my head as of late. All I did was give them the set-up Valentine's Day, a dinner party and off they merrily went. The play that came out of their imaginary collisions and collusions is, for me at least, as zany and as fun as they are."
It's a great set-up. With a bit more background exposition and intensity of focus, we could all get to know these characters better and heartily join the party.
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