The last time Kristine Nielsen appeared in a play by Chris Durang, her character was named after an instrument that measures the power of earthquakesand they could have used such an instrument to measure the earthquake of laughter that rocked the audience when Nielsen got rolling, especially during the climactic scene in which she played, with nonstop instant switching, the entire personnel of a trial, from judge to defendant. That was in Betty's Summer Vacation (1999); Nielsen and Durang both won Obie awards (her second, his third), and a rematch was clearly in the stars.
Now, the hilarity-producing team has been reincarnateda word that couldn't be apter, since in Durang's new play Miss Witherspoon, which starts previews November 11 at Playwrights Horizons for a November 29 opening, the title character, embodied by Nielsen, keeps coming back, in a series of increasingly inconvenient life-forms, even though her only desire is to blot herself out of this world. A Buddhist could probably explain to her what she's doing wrong, but the Hindu spirit guide who strives to escort her through the play's netherworld scenes has little luck with this heroine's anti-life obstinacy. Durang describes his work as "a comedy to make you worry."
For those who can't wait to see what the Durang-Nielsen combo will make of the afterlife, Miss Witherspoon will have a pre-Manhattan life of its own at Princeton's McCarter Theatre, which commissioned the script, before the production, staged by McCarter artistic director Emily Mann, arrives at Playwrights Horizons. This match, too, is intriguing, since Mann is best known for fact-based documentary dramas like her Obie-winning Still Life and the Broadway shows Execution of Justice and Having Our Say. For her factuality to keep its footing in the looniness of a spirit world invented by Durang and inhabited by Nielsen will be quite a challenge. But she's summoned some strong powers to her assistance: In addition to Nielsen, the cast includes two redoubtable actresses, Lynda Gravatt and Colleen Werthmann; newcomer Mahira Kakkar; and still another Obie winner, Jeremy Shamos, the droll comic of last year's Engaged and The Rivals.
All in all, it sounds like comedy incarnatenot for the first time with Durang, whose memorable stage outings include such classic mixtures of the nerve-fraying and the laughter-inducing as The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Baby With the Bathwater, Beyond Therapy, A History of the American Film, and American Catholicism's favorite preDa Vinci Code target of resentment, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. Between Miss Witherspoon's test run at Princeton and its arrival on West 42nd Street, Durang will be heading further down the Amtrak corridor to play Papa to his new musical Adrift in Macao, a film noir spoof with music by Peter Melnick, which runs at the Philadelphia Theater Company from October 21 to November 20, in a production by Cheryl Kaller that features such familiar Broadway musical names as Michelle Ragusa and Michael Rupert, with Rachel deBenedet in a role inspired by the slinky screen presence of Lauren Bacall. Whether Macao, too, will drift our way remains to be seen. In the meantime, the wise will catch Miss Witherspoon before Nielsen heads off to yet another incarnation.
Miss Witherspoon by Chris Durang, previews November 11, Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street, 212-279-4200.
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