Oscar E Moore

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Painting Churches by Tina Howe: Off B’way revival

March 7th, 2012 by Oscar E Moore

By the time the double portrait of her parents – Fanny and Gardner Church is finished by their long absent, bohemian looking artistic daughter “Mags” who has returned home to their Beacon Hill townhouse to help them pack up to move to a much smaller “cottage by the sea” and to paint said portrait and sort out their strained relationship – we begin to agree with Fanny that sitting (she posing and we watching) is akin to “Chinese Torture.”

This quite famous play by Tina Howe “Painting Churches” was first produced in 1983 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  You’d never know it by the look and sounds of this production which has just opened at The Clurman on Theatre Row – produced by Keen Company, its artistic director, Carl Forsman, responsible for the odd tone, lackluster and annoying direction.

One would hope to imagine that we could care for this aging couple, who both seem to be on their way to assisted living.  Fanny (an overly eccentric Kathleen Chalfant) and her forgetful husband Gardner (an introspective and dotty John Cunningham) who no longer can bring in the bucks necessary to live in the style that they have become accustomed to as he is losing his memory and can no longer lecture and write the poetry that made their high lifestyle possible, Dubonnet cocktails (or are they martinis?) a nightly ritual.  Sad and funny, yes.  Aggravating, no.

The balance between realism and surrealism teeters precariously here and neither one is the winner, the play getting lost and the characters appearing wacky and then normal in the split of a second.

Ms. Chalfant, looking most elegant, shouts most of Act I to her off stage husband who is sorting out his papers and caring for his pet bird “Toots” who can recite poetry.  If you stick around long enough you’ll hear it. 

As will you be privy to the oh-so-sad back story of Mags (a down-trodden Kate Turnbull) and her crayons and critical mother.  In Act II Ms. Chalfant is practically inaudible in what is supposed to be a touching scene.

Mr. Cunningham fares better playing a man losing his grasp on all things and having to deal with his wife who seems annoyed at having to care for him and willing to shoot herself in the head to end it all – I wish I could have believed her speaking to herself more.

The set by Beowulf Boritt has the same conflicting elements – Real or Surreal?  No one seems to have made a definitive choice and the result is simply tiresome.

Through April 7th  www.keencompany.org  Photo:  Carol Rosegg

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