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This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the April 14, 2004

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

Review: `Wrong Turn at Lungfish’

Theatergoers, you won’t go wrong with "Wrong Turn at Lungfish."

Here’s a laugh-out-loud comedy until it segues in its last scene to a

wrenching, unexpected examination of the fundamental meaning of human

life and its ultimate end. (This critic and my theater-going friend

had the same reaction walking out of the theater after the play:

"Wow!)

The play by Garry Marshall and Lowell Ganz is critically acclaimed; it

was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the

1992-’93 season. As directed at Off-Broadstreet Theater by co-producer

Robert Thick, with some sleek and sexy costumes by Ann Raymond, it

stars the ever-excellent character actor Doug Kline as former dean

Peter Ravenswall and Joyce La Briola in a fine performance as the

sluttish Anita Merendino. The show continues at Off Broadstreet

Theater on weekends through Saturday, May 1.

The provocative title is a joke on evolution: "Creatures maintain what

they need to survive," explains Peter.

The show takes place in a single set, Peter’s hospital room, with his

hospital bed center stage. An adjoining bathroom is offstage.

Elderly Peter and Anita, a young woman volunteer reader (or so it

seems until her true motive is revealed), carry the show, with

occasional poppings in of Mel Evans as the hospital nurse. The

glorious music of Beethoven, presumably on Peter’s radio, continues

throughout the play. Anita’s rough, brutish, surly fiance, Dominic De

Caesar (Robin Carcione) appears near the end and his violent action

intrudes on the play’s otherwise calm mood.

Most of the play is full of wonderfully comic lines, some based on the

discrepancy in education between Peter and Anita. When Peter says, "I

was being facetious," Anita asks, "Is that like being horny?" Another

early clue to Anita’s uneducated state is her mistaking Casey

Stengel’s name for Stendhal, famous French author of "The Red and the

Black."

Peter, blind, is dying, though the audience is never told why. The

only clue is his statement "that which made me blind is about to make

me dead." Peter, a true intellectual, has, in his own words,

"dedicated my life to holding people to a high standard of

intellectual honesty." But that has not given him faith or solace, and

he has no visitors (read: no friends) Now, with death approaching, he

admits to Anita, "I’m afraid."

Though he appears self-confident and witty, he isn’t: He is "grappling

with the fundamental meaning of life" and hopes to find in his

hospital record "the whole meaning of my existence."

Anita, his opposite, lets him know, flippantly, airily that "truth and

beauty means as much to me as a bug I stepped on." While Anita is

vulgar, untutored, sluttish, and street-wise, don’t expect the play to

be an easy make-over.

Anita and Dominic are after Peter’s money. Although the bulk of it is

going to restore classical old books, Peter willingly writes a check

to her for $300, although after Anita’s stroking him on the bed in his

supposed sleep, he mistakenly signs the check "fellatio."

Toward the play’s end Peter collapses on the floor. Back in bed, he

lapses into early dementia, and we learn from his calling out that his

wife died of cancer and he had an affair with a student. This is a far

cry from his stated ideal: "There is a life that aspires/ It seeks."

Dominic, rough and tough, meanwhile appears through the bathroom

window and attacks Anita again, and Peter defends her with "Let her

alone, you stupid animal!" (Lest you believe that great music and

literature are reforming elements, Dominic, who knows the composers of

several famous operas, remains an animal. We learn that his mother

loved opera and had records of the famous operas, which he used to

listen to, but his father broke them over Dominic’s head.)

Anita tells Peter that Dominic has slept over in his underwear (hardly

shocking, even 14 years ago). On stage Anita clings to Dominic – "It’s

scary to be alone" – and at first, suitcase in hand, runs after him.

He (and she) come back in through the bathroom window. Finally, after

more of Dominic’s brutality, she does let him go. He dumps her

suitcase full of clothes and absconds with the radio (through the

bathroom window). She remains behind.

While it is she who has greatly changed, through Peter’s influence and

the great literature she reads to him, Peter changes, too. For Peter

has been no saint. He shuns any faith in the supernatural. Thinking of

his dead wife, he says simply "She’s in the ground, I’ll be in the

ground. That’s what I believe." Still, he has found a kind of peace,

has learned to need people. No longer the lofty intellectual idealist,

he says to Anita, "If at the end you’re there to hold my hand and put

your arms around me and tell me I’ve done well, that’s all I need."

The more evident change is in Anita. The play ends with Anita, having

rejected Dominic and his brutal life, sitting beside Peter’s bed

reading. What she is reading – and Peter is reciting from memory – are

the moving last lines of T.S. Eliot’s "The Love Song of J. Alfred

Prufrock," one of English literature’s most sorrowful, wrenching, and

graceful poems about aging.

– Joan Crespi

Wrong Turn at Lungfish, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood

Avenue, Hopewell, Through May 1. $22.50 & $24. Fridays and Saturdays

at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m.


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