Sunday, January 20, 2019

151 (2018-2019): Review: ABOUT ALICE (seen January 18, 2019)

“Just Dumb Luck”

Calvin Trillin, the well-known humorist whose writing has been long associated with The New Yorker, was married to a wonderful woman named Alice Stewart Trillin (1938-2001), about whom he often wrote, including a memoir called About Alice. That memoir is the basis for a sweet and touching, if not particularly memorable, two-person play of the same name now at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, where Leonard Foglia has directed it for Theatre for a New Audience. 
Jeffrey Bean, Carrie Paff. Photo: Gerri Goodstein.
The two characters are Trillin himself, played by Jeffrey Bean (The Thanksgiving Play), and, of course, Alice (Carrie Paff, Ideation). About Alice consists of Trillin recounting his 35 years of marriage to this beautiful—outside and in—woman, described in the program notes as “a remarkable educator, author, film producer, activist and longtime muse of her husband, Calvin Trillin, whom she married in 1965.”
Jeffrey Bean. Photo: Gerri Goodstein.
About Alice memorializes Alice’s too-brief life, which might have been briefer had she (a nonsmoker) succumbed earlier to the lung cancer with which she was stricken in 1976. Trillin projects her as a near perfect person, whose professional talents were accompanied by a wit that made her, in Trillin’s twist on the expected reference, George Burns to his Gracie Allen. He insists that for someone like him to marry someone like her was “just dumb luck.”
Jeffrey Bean, Carrie Paff. Photo: Gerri Goodstein,
His account recalls their meeting at a party, their mutually Jewish origins (her mother, both his parents), their lives together as man and wife, their accomplished, socially aware daughters, Alice’s career achievements, and, most significantly, her 25-year-battle with the on- again, off-again scourge of cancer, about which experiences she wrote extensively. Ironically, when she died, it was not from cancer itself but from the cumulative effects of the radiation she’d received over the years.
Jeffrey Bean, Carrie Paff. Photo: Gerri Goodstein.
It’s a familiar version of the kind of story we’ve practically become inured to after years of movies and TV scripts describing noble, exceptional people fighting fatal illness but never losing hope, being brave even when staring death straight in the eye. And while it’s hard not to keep your own eyes from tearing up at such courageous fortitude, especially if you’ve witnessed a loved one’s suffering (as who hasn’t?), that alone shouldn’t be why we praise the latest dramatization of such a struggle. After all, it’s also likely that your cheeks get wet when you watch a commercial for the Shriners Hospital, with its adorable handicapped children, or an ASPCA ad showing one pitiable canine after the other. 
Carrie Paff, Jeffrey Bean. Photo: Henry Grossman.
About Alice has the form of a one-man play into which Alice—wearing a series of flattering outfits designed by David C. Woolard—continues to intrude, occasionally in dialogue but more often in direct address. Riccardo Hernandez’s thrust set is a simple arrangement of polished wooden platforming, lit effectively by Russell H. Champs, with an upstage screen for Elaine J. McCarthy’s surprisingly limited projections.
Jeffrey Bean, Carrie Paff. Photo: Henry Grossman.
The general tone, though, is more that of a memorized recitation than words spoken spontaneously. For all Bean’s appealing charm, his words have a literary, not a natural cadence. Paff is more successful at sounding in the moment but she too can’t always shake the sense that she’s performing a text meant for reading, not speaking.
Carrie Paff, Jeffrey Bean. Photo: Henry Grossman.
And with that text written by Calvin Trillin, we expect not just conventional hagiography, but a comically illuminating take on the familiar dilemma of caring for a loved one living beneath an ever-threatening sword of Damocles. There are certainly laughs here but they’re neither frequent nor loud enough to ward off the inevitable sorrow that’s bound to govern. 
Carrie Paff, Jeffrey Bean. Photo: Henry Grossman.
At one point, Trillin, explaining that Alice would often critique his work, offers the following tongue-in-cheek exchange:

ALICE Is this meant to be funny?
CALVIN Well, maybe mildly amusing.
ALICE (As if turning over that idea in her head) Mildly amusing . . .
CALVIN (Looking a bit concerned) How about wry? I’m often described as wry. I’ve decided that wry means almost funny. But that’s fine, if you think it might be wry. Wry is fine. I’d settle for wry.
ALICE (Again considering) Wry . . .
CALVIN Well, what did you think?
ALICE (With a straight face) I think this is very funny.
CALVIN You do? ALICE Yes, I do. One of the funniest things you’ve ever written. (Suddenly smiling) Gotcha!

About Alice, though, isn’t one of the funniest things Trillin has ever written. Nor, given its subject matter, should it be. But where its humor is concerned, Alice’s original assessments are pretty close to the mark. 
Carrie Paff, Jeffrey Bean. Photo: Henry Grossman.

Polonsky Shakespeare Center/Theatre for a New Audience
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
Through February 3