Sunday, May 30, 2010

New play in NJ focuses on woman with autistic daughter

The NY Times Review:

Joe DiPietro does crowd-pleasing for a living. Mr. DiPietro is the playwright who gave us “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” and, on Broadway this season, the musical “Memphis.” With “Creating Claire,” now in its world premiere at the George Street Playhouse, he seems to be trying to please both sides of a fierce debate: the one between religion and science, creationism versus evolution.

This is an awfully well done production, with notable performances, strong direction by David Saint and powerful projection design, from the literal (fish with tiny feet emerging from a prehistoric sea) to the cosmic (observatory-style starry-night skies), by Michael Clark. But throughout the play, as the writer’s voice comes through, it is manipulating us shamelessly.

The protagonist is the title character, who gives tours of the Museum of Earth and Sky. (This is presented as a much more demanding, time-consuming career than you might think.) One day, in the middle of her “Origins of Life” tour, Claire throws in an unscripted comment. Maybe, she says, all of this happened over billions of years because there was a designer behind it all, a designer with a plan.

This is strange because Claire has always been a proud agnostic. And no precipitating factors that might explain her sudden change of heart are ever mentioned.

Claire is played by Barbara Walsh (pictured right), who was so good as the “Ladies Who Lunch” sophisticate Joanne in the 2006 revival of “Company.” Ms. Walsh is calm, confident and self-possessed, even when she realizes that her little ad lib may cost her her job. It would probably have been a very different production if Sandy Duncan, who was originally scheduled to play the role, were the star. (Ms. Duncan dropped out earlier this month because of illness.)

Considering that Claire’s behavior is inexplicable, Ms. Walsh gives a remarkable performance. Michael Countryman is strong and sympathetic as her baffled husband, Reggie. As their teenage daughter, who has autism, Celia Keenan-Bolger (pictured left) is outstanding, committing fully to the girl’s condition and maintaining her dignity even when her comments are played for laughs.

The only somewhat weak link, and it’s a surprising one, is Lynn Cohen as Victoria, Claire’s boss, who sticks to her atheist guns but tries to be understanding of whatever Claire is going through. Ms. Cohen, now best known as the nanny employed by Cynthia Nixon’s character in the television and film versions of “Sex and the City,” seems well cast. She also has some of the juicier lines (like, “There is nothing more insidious than a person with a higher purpose and a lawyer”). But I never believed a word she was saying when she stood up for the rights of nonbelievers.

It’s not clear whether that was a deliberate choice made by Mr. Saint (who is also the playhouse’s artistic director) or by the actress herself. Another possibility is that the character is just too hobbled by Mr. DiPietro’s dialogue, which includes some sweeping generalizations that hint strongly at which side of the aisle he really wants to cater to.

At last Sunday’s matinee, theatergoers groaned at religious lines like Claire’s reaction to the death of Victoria’s partner: “She’s in a better place now.” But that was a Northeastern audience; the reaction might be very different at a performance in the Bible Belt. And that, it appears, is just what “Creating Claire” is counting on.