Friday, December 21, 2018

137 (2018-2019): Review: THE NET WILL APPEAR (seen December 20, 2018)

“The Pellowman”

Remember “Calvin and Hobbes,” Bill Watterson’s great comic strip that ran in newspapers from 1985-1995? It’s the one featuring the naughty, precocious, imaginative, yet childishly naïve, six-year-old Calvin, and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes. The latter is the kid’s talking, worldly-wise, best friend, even though everyone else sees him as a lifeless toy. It’s a relationship I couldn’t get out of my mind as I watched Erin Mallon’s vaguely titled, sentimental, two-hander, The Net Will Appear, a slender piece at 59E59 that might better have been called Rory and Nard.
Eve Johnson, Richard Masur. Photo: Jody Christopherson.
Rory (Eve Johnson) is a nine-year-old girl whose house in suburban Toledo, OH, is only a few feet from that of 75-year-old Bernard (Richard Masur), a burly, bearded, grungy geezer with a braided ponytail. The upper story of each house (designed by Matthew J. Fick and lit by Justin A. Partier and Jenn Burkhardt) has windows leading onto a small roof-like extension, which the characters use as if it were an unrailed balcony.

Rory has moved in only recently with her mother and stepfather (“bonus dad” is the operative phrase) and siblings. Ignored by her parents, including her real father, she’s desperate for someone to talk to, which leads to her striking up a friendship with the borderline curmudgeon next door. Nard, as Rory calls him, is the kind of guy who sets mousetraps on a tree to catch the sparrows that annoy him. Of course, his problems go deeper, what with his continuing grief over the loss of his own child many years ago and the worsening dementia of his beloved wife, Irma. 
Eve Johnson. Photo: Jody Christopherson.
As the months go by, the garrulous kid—a Jew who attends Catholic parochial school—and the hesitant old duffer—whose chief occupation is sitting in his folding chair and sipping Jim Beam—become mutually adoring pals. Surprise!

She, casually sprinkling her lines with the kind of profanities normally reserved for older characters, and now and then saying unintentionally hurtful things, expostulates on various subjects with a mingling of words and intellectual concepts beyond her years. Many of her remarks are quoted directly (albeit not always fully understood) from her elders. Nevertheless, she’s just as likely to stumble when the playwright strains for a laugh. 
Richard Masur. Photo: Jody Christopherson.
For instance, she announces her ambition to be a choreographer, a dolphin trainer, and a detective, and tosses off words like anthropomorphize; on the other hand, when she first meets Bernard she thinks his name is Great Dane because she knew it was “the name of some awesome dog.” Clunk. Or when Bernard says he’s Episcopalian she tells him it would be nicer for him not to call himself an alien but an “undocumented worker.” Clunk again. Malapropisms, like confusing “flatulence” with “turbulence” or “rumor” for “tumor” are stretches for this apparent whiz kid. And maybe it’s best I don’t describe the bit about her “lady goblet.” There’s so much of such inane chatter, it’s a relief the play ends after an hour and a half. 
Richard Masur. Photo: Jody Christopherson.
At the same time, Bernard, until he gets his big emotional scenes toward the end, serves mainly to correct, advise, admonish, and support Rory's nonstop commentary. In other words, much as Hobbes does for Calvin, Bernard serves as Rory’s dryly sardonic straight man, offering the grownup perspective that Calvin so obviously lacks. Why Mallon finds it necessary to tag him with such unnecessary tics as a habit of saying “pellow” for “pillow” needs a greater mind than mine to decipher.

Which isn’t to deny that there are indeed some clever moments, even if Rory’s verbal skills, interests, and general knowledge often seem to defy belief. There was certainly considerable laughter in the house.

Rory has to be a devilishly difficult part for a child to play and Eve Johnson acquitted herself well enough, speaking many of her (too) rapidly delivered lines from the side of her mouth with a kind of knowing insouciance. As might be expected from a child actor in such a big part, though, her frequent transitions felt as though they’d been specifically requested by director Mark Cirnigliano. Veteran Richard Masur has played overtly gruff but actually warmhearted characters like Bernard often enough so that he need do little more than say the words and we accept him. 
Richard Masur. Photo: Jody Christopherson.
The Net Will Appear, whose title is intended to suggest that if you make that leap you’ll always be saved by the net, is a minor time passer. It makes no great leaps, however. For me, the play’s significance lies in reminding me of how much I miss “Calvin and Hobbes.”


59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59 St., NYC
Through December 30