One of the longstanding gems of the New York theatre scene is the Pearl Theatre Company. The current production of Lillian Hellman’s “Toys in the Attic,” directed by Austin Pendleton, can only serve to enhance the excellent reputation of this fine repertory company, which continues to shine under the brilliant leadership of Artistic Director, Shepard Sobel.
On entering the intimate and very comfortable theater, one is immediately struck by the exquisite detail of the curtain-free set, already fully and very delightfully exposed to the arriving audience. We find ourselves in 1940’s New Orleans. The clever bilateral scenic design reveals both the tired elegance of the parlor in the Berniers family’s ancient riverfront home, and the charming adjacent porch and garden that are delicately embraced by lacy trees, hanging moss, and a charming garden wall. Among the lovely plants and flowers, crimson azaleas sharpen focus on the garden. The parlor, meanwhile, may have seen better days, yet the scenic design of Harry Feiner seems to have the kind of charming Victorian detail one might associate with director, Vincent Minnelli, in films like “Gigi” or “Meet Me in St. Louis.” The subtle lighting designs of Stephen Petrilli skillfully highlight the scene. Thus, the stage is set. Enter Anna Berniers (Robin Leslie Brown).
Anna and her sister Carrie (Rachel Botchan) are the two middle-aged maiden ladies who inhabit this old house, which, it turns out, they have disliked since childhood and would be happy to sell. The talented Miss Brown gives us a brooding Anna who seems the very embodiment of life’s dissatisfactions. Miss Botchan’s Carrie, on the other hand, is ever the romantic and tries her best to be optimistic. It seems their only joy in life is an occasional visit from their lively ne’er-do-well younger brother, the cheerful frequent business failure, Julian (Sean McNall). But the sisters adore him, and never hesitate to bail him out of financial difficulties, even at the risk of continuing to delay their long hoped-for trip to Europe. The plot thickens when Julian arrives with his new bride, Lily (Ivy Vahanian), for an unexpected visit. But this time he is flush with money and lavish gifts of unknown origin. So it is that we enter the world of Miss Hellman’s central question: Does attaining our dreams in life really make us happy?
The handsome Mr. McNall looks like a 1930’s Van Heusen shirt model, and virtually explodes on stage in his boisterous arrival as Julian. His enthusiasm is infectious, and this is an actor that is great fun to watch. But compelling actors in this cast surround him.(All are in tasteful costumes of the period from designer, Barbara A. Bell). Brown’s multi-faceted performance is gritty, thoughtful and often passionate in her clashes with Carrie and Lily. Her husky voice and southern drawl call to mind Patrica Neal’s sultry performance in “Hud.” Botchan’s Carrie is a wonderfully many-dimensional portrayal of a woman whose hopes and dreams are clouded by perhaps too great a devotion to her brother. Miss Vahanian’s fine Lily is a troubled soul who is at once flighty and flirtatious, and yet full of hysteria, desperation, and dark emotions fit for a psychiatrist’s couch. Lily’s mother, Albertine Prine, brings us the warmth of yet another polished performance from Joanne Camp. Albertine and her refined black companion, Henry (a skillfully low-key performance from rich-voiced Robert Colston) seem to harbor dangerous secrets about the source of Julian’s newfound wealth. Therein lie the disturbing plot dynamics that propel this story of a sadly dysfunctional cast of characters. But there is enough of Miss Hellman’s wit and humor sprinkled throughout to “make the medicine go down,” as they are singing uptown in “Mary Poppins.”
Capable supporting players included Joe Froehlich, R.J. Foster, William White, and Marcus Naylor as the cheerful and lusty-voiced iceman, Gus. They added luster to a truly ensemble performance that left one line of dialogue ringing in my ears: “There’s something sad about not liking what you want when you get it.”
The Pearl Theatre is located at 80 St. Marks Place in Manhattan where performances of “Toys in the Attic” continue through February 18, 2007. For tickets or information call 212-598-9802 or visit www.pearltheatre.org.