Miss Connections, a new comedy by Marvin Cheiten, debuted last weekend with just five performances at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. The local resonances were rich indeed with a Princeton playwright, a contemporary Princeton setting, abundant town and campus references and distinctively Princeton issues on the agenda.
Mr. Cheiten, Princeton resident, local businessman, and a Princeton University alumnus, was also the producer of this five-character satire, enlisting his long-time collaborator Dan Berkowitz, now based in Hollywood, as his director and assembling a capable, mostly-professional cast and production team.
Miss Connections is the story of a seemingly mismatched husband and wife, and their teen-aged daughter who is caught in the middle and is eager to provide an acerbic, witty perspective on her parents' foibles.
Tom Brown, the father (Joe Whelski), left home eight years ago. Fed up with the hypocrisies and artificiality of Princeton society and his wife's upper crust, tradition-bound family, he wanted "to see how real people live and suffer." His wife Lily (Alexandria Tobia), thinking her husband permanently gone, has just become engaged to Rex Worthy (Scott Van Tuyl), a smooth, arrogant, impeccably dressed financier of mysterious origins. Sixteen-year-old Thalia (Joanne Nosuchinsky) misses her father, detests Rex ("Mr. Wormy" as she calls him), and loves her mother, whom, in classic teen-ager fashion, she barely tolerates, and unsparingly mocks.
Mid-way through the first of four scenes, spread over two acts, Tom tattered jeans, dirty old knapsack and overall scruffiness clashing with the well appointed surroundings of Lily's living room suddenly returns from his eight-year sojourn in Africa, hoping to reclaim his wife and daughter.
In the course of the ensuing conflicts between Tom and his abandoned daughter, between Tom and his angry wife, between Tom (soon in alliance with Thalia) and his pretentious rival the play confronts dilemmas of upper class life in Princeton: Is this the real world or an escape from the true suffering of the world? Is the husband who left to work in Darfur morally superior to his wife who stayed and worked for philanthropic causes closer to home? Do the required façades and behaviors of suburban high society undermine meaningful human values? Is Princeton's liberalism and philanthropy merely a convenient sop to the conscience, a thin veneer that quickly gives way to a harsher self-protective and self-serving conservatism when personal conflicts arise? Though Miss Connections does raise these important questions, the light tone and lack of depth here neither sustain depth of social commentary nor encourage extensive exploration of these issues.
The Brown's neighbor Letitia Thimbleweight (Claudia Stoy), a histrionic local poet, bursts periodically through the front door to provide comic relief and satiric perspective on these issues. Colorfully outfitted in her deer-hunting attire, she recites her poetry "to celebrate the glory and tranquility of nature," while wielding her guns and her Hummer to attack deer, geese, and any other creatures who encroach on her personal domain.
Miss Connections provides a diverting evening of comic theater. The pace moves swiftly. Much of the dialogue is clever and witty. There are rich dramatic moments, rife with conflict. The satiric attacks are on target, gentle, and humorous rather than trenchant and lacerating. The farcical elements of the play, however, at times do clash with the play's more serious objectives. Is this TV sit-com or Ibsen? It doesn't succeed at being both.
The Princeton references are amusing and were vastly entertaining for the local audience last Saturday night. Mr. Cheiten knows the world about which he writes. The characters are fun to watch.
Ms. Nosuchinsky's Thalia (aptly named after the Greek muse of comedy) is both a superb device as the audience's lens on the action; a counterpoint to the follies of the adults and the excesses of her society; and also as a skillfully created, thoroughly believable character. Ms. Nosuchinsky, who will be attending Rider University in the fall on a four-year acting scholarship, embodies this figure with charm and conviction cell phone glued to her ear; the expressively dismissive posture and attitude towards the adults; the rolling eyes and impatiently wiggling toes as she dutifully listens to the obligatory lectures from her mother; and the lively smartness and energy as she cleverly helps bring resolution to the conflicts of the play.
Her more experienced colleagues are not always as successful in rendering credible characterizations. Mr. Whelski's father is highly sympathetic and usually engaging in his interactions with wife, daughter, and rival. The character's idealism and moral crusading, however, do not always ring true. Ms. Tobia's portrayal of the Princeton socialite mother caught in the middle between two men and their conflicting values and life styles, is lively and intelligent, but sometimes less than plausible in its shifts of emotion and tone. Mr. Van Tuyl's Rex Worthy and Ms. Stoy's Letitia Thimbleweight are both one-dimensional figures, but vivid, dramatic, and artfully created.
The professional design elegant living room set by Matthew R Campbell, realistic lighting by Christopher Gorzelnik, and on-target, character-enhancing costumes by Marie Miller serve the production and the actors admirably, helping to establish believably the world of Princeton suburban affluence.
Mr. Cheiten, who received his Ph.D. in French Literature from Princeton, has learned many playwriting lessons from his French forebears the unities of time, place, and action, so rigorously championed by French playwrights of the 17th century, and the principles of the "well-made" plays of Eugene Scribe from the first half of the 19th century.
Miss Connections is clearly and carefully structured, with first scene exposition flowing smoothly into rising action based on cause and effect, building to a climax. Bits of information are withheld until the appropriate dramatic moments. The end of each scene is finely crafted to maximize dramatic effect. The final, rather contrived, denouement leaves nothing unresolved. The results are clear, aesthetically ordered, and pleasing. What future audiences or readers may miss here, and is also often lacking in neoclassical French drama and the well-made play, is a certain depth of realistic characterization and exploration into issues and complexities of the human condition.
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