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This review by Nicole Plett was prepared for the October 22, 2003

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `Wintertime’

Charles L. Mee is a thoroughly modern playwright. He

has his own manifesto and his own website (www.charlesmee.org) where

his scripts can be downloaded, cut-up, and rewritten by Web-sters

around the globe. His digital cache of 22 plays includes

"Wintertime,"

a two-act comedy that opened at McCarter’s Matthews Theater on Friday,

October 17, where it plays through Sunday, November 2.

"Wintertime" has already been produced at some of the nation’s

best regional theaters and with this staging, co-produced with the

Second Stage, it moves to New York.

"There is no such thing as an original play," says Mee, citing

precedents, beginning with the Greeks, for the kind of bricolage he

practices. "If things happen suddenly and inexplicably, it’s

because

a playwright believes that’s how life is." Yet as comedy, this

"Wintertime" is a sorry sight. Never mind the nod to

Aristophanes,

it brings to mind the Popeye and Olive Oyl school of drama in which

crazy, mixed-up, and shallow contemporary urbanites deposit nuggets

of questionable wisdom before us (some using fake French, Italian,

and Russian accents). And since few if any of the play’s characters

are people we can care about, their endless observations on love and

human relationships are largely irrelevant.

Within this stilted set-up, director David Schweizer

raises the stakes with a static, stylized production. Not only do

most of the actors perform as if on the overheated set of a TV sitcom

"filmed before a live audience;" when not actually speaking,

each stands mute and blank faced, neither hearing nor reacting to

the speech of others.

While some playwrights might strive to tease apart the highs and lows

of a love relationship between two people, Mee, who credits his

reading

of Anne Carson’s "Eros the Bittersweet" for the play’s themes,

tackles the erotic possibilities between all 10 of his characters.

(When you count the double dipping, this amounts to seven or eight

sexual couplings.)

Then there’s the buttocks factor. The sight of a 200-pound-plus woman

repeatedly baring her buttocks (along with those of all nine of her

fellow cast members) is not something you see every day.

The play’s inversion of normality begins with a beautiful, opalescent

white setting, designed by Andrew Lieberman, a quiet wonderland of

snowbanks and silver birches where a summer house stands serenely,

independent of its idiotic occupants. The time is the winter holiday,

and each couple has traveled here under the assumption they’ll be

left in peace.

We watch the young lovers Jonathan (McCaleb Burnett) and Ariel

(Brienin

Bryant) make their romantic entrance, with Ariel declaiming about

the invention of song, a theme that recurs throughout the play. "I

think this is why there is music and painting," she lectures her

silent lover, "because there was love first and music is how it

feels." Not coincidentally, the play’s opening is accompanied

by the soaring soprano sounds of "beautiful heartbreaking

music"

by Massenet. And Puccini plays a part in the play’s eventual climax.

Almost immediately the young lovers come face to face with their

undressed

elders: Jonathan’s mother Maria (Marsha Mason) and her lover and

"bad

person" Francois (Michael Cerveris). Both elders bring ample

slapstick

to their stereotyped roles, but with little success. Next on the scene

is Maria’s husband Frank (Nicholas Hormann) and his gay lover Edmund

(T. Scott Cunningham).

The squabbling menage is interrupted by the arrival of their elderly

and breathless neighbor Bertha (Carmen de Lavallade) who tells of

an ice fishing accident. She frantically appeals for help in rescuing

her lover who has disappeared beneath the surface of the ice-covered

lake. Soon enough the missing Hilda (Lola Pashalinski), a hefty woman

as wide as Bertha is high, appears, soaking wet, and accuses Bertha

of abandonment.

"What Plato said was desire can only be for something that is

lacking. If you don’t lack it, you can’t desire it," the laid

back deliveryman Bob (Danny Mastrogiorgio) eventually tells these

four unhappy couples. (How Bob manages to steal every scene he enters

is another directorial mystery.) An amputated tree stump, placed at

center stage (paired with Bob’s references to Jeffrey Dahmer), simply

screams this erotic "lack."

Given the rising tide of jealousy and suspicion among all assembled,

violence and revelry both offer cathartic possibilities. With the

help of some cartoon-like props, the first act finds the couples

enjoying

bouts of door-slamming and dish-smashing violence.

The last love interest to arrive is Jacqueline who, in the guise of

a "Doctor Without Walls," is making an unexplained housecall.

When she and Francois recognize each other from a night of sex in

Zagreb the stage seems that it will burst from the assemblage of

mismatched

couples.

The second act returns all but one character to the stage, seated

on a row of chairs facing front, for Maria’s wake. More superficial

speeches on loss and regret are declaimed until Hilda announces that

"it’s time to rend our garments." A raucous, Velcro-powered

strip show ensues, precipitating a miraculous occurence that segues

into Bertha and Hilda’s final New Year’s eve Viking feast.

Mee is clearly enjoying success in his post-modern venture. What

laughs

you can find in this dark show, please cut and paste at will.

— Nicole Plett

Wintertime, Matthews Theater at McCarter Theater,

91 University Place, 609-258-2787. Performances continue to Sunday,

November 2. $27 to $48.


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