Less Easy Pieces

Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach, I think, was the son who always wrote to old Johann Sebastian, begging his dad to give up all that dreary counterpoint, and try something hip like a fantasia for a change. Papa Bach paid no attention, but went fuguing on his old contrapuntal way; as a result, much of his best work was forgotten until nearly 80 years after his death, when Mendelssohn dredged it up, starting a revival that hasn't ended yet.

The moral of this little factoid isn't that retro is better, but that artists are best off doing what they can, not what others tell them they should. Shelagh Stephenson's The Memory of Water and Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth are both plays that, barring bits of language and gesture, could have been staged pretty much anytime in the last 70 years, but that's no condemnation. Both writers have something to accomplish dramatically, and both set about it with skill and individuality. The stories they tell— family stories, generational stories, boy-girl stories— are old news, but a story's value lies in the telling. Bach didn't write memorable tunes either, by and large, but he knew how to make the most of them fugally. The Memory of Wateris a post- religious Yorkshire version of that Irish favorite, the family funeral play, where the siblings gather to squabble across their mother's coffin— literally in the last scene— over who loved whom most. Elder sister Teresa (Suzanne Bertish), who runs a health-food business with her work-weary husband, is the embittered enabler; she can't speak two sentences without pushing somebody else's guilt button. Middle sister Mary (J. Smith-Cameron) is the successful escapee, a neurologist who fixates on her brain-damaged patients to avoid confronting her unresolved relations with her mother, including a gnarly secret involving an illegitimate child. Mum (Robin Moseley), chatty and lively, haunts her dreams anyway. The worst mess of all is baby sister Catherine (Seana Kofoed), a drug-dazed bundle of needs and inadequacies who can't keep from whining her way into the center of attention at all times. Most sibling trios work out a more decorous modus vivendi; Stephenson's three are in a perpetual state of war, with Teresa's husband and Mary's lover (a married man) regularly caught in the cross fire. By the end there are resolutions, and a degree of reconciliation, but Stephenson's moral might as well have been Oscar Wilde's witticism, "Women only call each other sister when they've called each other a good many other things first."

Her spicy, flavorsome writing is what saves the bickering from monotony; she knows how conversations criss-cross, why people shift topics in the middle of a discussion, where to toss in the bits of occupational jargon with which the competitive one-up each other. In addition, she has a canny sense of the absurdity that always erupts to throw somber occasions out of whack. The scene is the deceased mother's bedroom, where sister Catherine is staying. Her life there is farcically interrupted once in each act— first by Teresa's insistence on sorting out Mum's clothes, then by the arrival of her coffin; both sight gags lead to trauma.

Ruffalo and Rosenthal in This Is Our Youth: Some things go worse with coke.
Susan Cook
Ruffalo and Rosenthal in This Is Our Youth: Some things go worse with coke.

Details

The Memory of Water
By Shelagh Stephenson
Manhattan Theatre Club
131 West 55th Street
581-1212

This Is Our Youth
By Kenneth Lonergan
Second Stage
2162 Broadway, at 75th Street
787-3392

The Scarlet Pimpernel
By Nan Knighton,
music by Frank Wildhorn
Minskoff Theatre
Broadway and 44th Street
307-4100

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Another advantage Stephenson has, presumably evoked by the liveliness of her text, is a strong, carefully shaped production by John Tillinger, whose directorial hand is usually much looser. Here he steers his way through the tricky mixture of acrimony and foolery, rarely toppling over to one side or the other. Kofoed occasionally lets Catherine's self-lacerations spill over into imitative fallacy, and Tillinger can't resist making too much of both Teresa's inebriation and Mary's attempts to be alone with her beau. But these are small complaints, given a script so full of fast switches and tiny details. They're easily outweighed by the solid cast Tillinger has assembled; for once the phrase "ensemble acting" is valid. J. Smith-Cameron's Mary, sporting a brazen carapace of denial that crumples like tinfoil at every shock, gets the commanding position, but Bertish's resigned, acerbic Teresa and Peter McRobbie as her careworn husband are close at her heels. Whatever isn't new about The Memory of Water, it has the freshness of an experience fully sounded.

As does This Is Our Youth, though the experience itself is a slightly callower one. Set on the Upper West Side in the greed-ridden early '80s, Kenneth Lonergan's two-act frenzy deals with the bright but undisciplined children of privilege who think that they know it all— or, in the case of Mark Ruffalo's Warren, always one adorable beat behind, that their best buddy knows it all. But Warren's best buddy is Dennis (Mark Rosenthal), whose self-aggrandizing and endless put-downs of everybody else— especially Warren— are the cover for an insecurity amounting to panic. A drop-out and part-time drug dealer, Dennis is subsidized in his own apartment by parents who are happy to have him stay away; Warren, living at home, suffers cold hostility and physical abuse from his father, busy drowning the pain of his divorce in executive wheeler-dealing.

The action, such as it is, comes from Warren's leaving home and taking along, in response to his latest beating, a huge lump of his father's cash on hand. The stolen money triggers a panic in Dennis, which builds into a folie à deux involving a botched coke deal, the offstage death by overdose of a friend, and cascades of self-abasing hysteria from both boys, in alternation with their lashing out at each other. For relief, there's a half-comic romantic interlude in which Warren makes love to, and then loses, a girl he's been coveting.

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