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CRUMBS FOR THE RESTLESS GENERATION

  

The Gingerbread HouseTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published April 24, 2009

 

The Gingerbread House

now playing Off Broadway at the Rattlestick Theater

through May 10

 

Boy, can Mark Schultz write! Watch out for anyone who starts a  play with a married couple sitting in front of their television set and the husband saying, “Got an idea…..I think we should sell the kids.”  His wife may only be joking when she responds by asking “How much we asking for?” and then tops that with “Maybe we can get a new fridge.” But see how subtly and wittily the play twists off into satire of the most savage kind when wishes come true.  Make no mistake about it. Schultz knows how to grab your attention. And he’s got ideas. And style to boot. In short, put Schultz on the short list of America’s most promising young playwrights.

 

You’ll understand all too easily why good actors respond to this kind of writing. And in The Gingerbread House, which the stageFARM is presenting as part of its aim to attract the attention of the YouTube generation of restless theatergoers in search of something cogent and fresh, Schultz has got the Off Broadway cast of the year. One of our best young actors, Jason Butler Harner (The Coast of Utopia,  Orange Flower Water, The Paris Letter), who gave one of last year’s best performances as the killer in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, is hard and coiled and ready to spring into action as the husband in question, and willing, as only really good actors are, to turn into a monster on the turn of a dime and even alienate the audience if that’s what it takes to make the author’s point. When he finally blasts out at his wife, who is played with a mixture of disarming charm and all-business steeliness by the lovely Sarah Paulsen, and tells her, in no uncertain terms, who she really is, we are so devastated that we don’t have the time to even consider whether or not there is a shred of truth in what he is saying. It even stops Ms. Paulsen dead in her tracks; she seems to have no choice but to accept the condemnation without even attempting to defend herself. It is what is known as a powerful moment in the theater. And a truly ugly one. It makes one shiver just to think of it.

 

The Gingerbread HouseAnd then there’s Bobby Cannavale, the master-mind behind the baby-selling business, who creates so breezily the easy charm of a satisfied and healthy bisexual that it would probably surprise him if you even suggested that there was something Machiavellian about his schemes and the casual way he gets Harner’s character to face up to his own latent homosexuality. And, in a deliciously wry mini-portrait of a woman who wants to take a fantasy cruise – and clearly can’t afford one without taking out a loan – the irrepressible Jackie Hoffman projects wariness, vulnerability, and anger that co-exist inside her anxious little soul. (Don’t ask what Ms. Hoffman projects when the cruise turns out to be a flop!)

 

And, finally, making a particularly memorable impression, probably because he is the least familiar face to us in this grand company of actors, there is Ben Rappaport, as a young man who worships, in puppy-dog fashion, Ms. Paulsen’s authority at the travel agency where they work. Each of these actors has located a real character to play, largely because Schultz has given them beautifully conceived stuff to work with. It is just as true, however, that Schultz should consider himself lucky to get such seriously talented actors to bring his writing to vivid life.

 

But, as they say, better luck next time. Schultz has written a series of provocative and tantalizing and cannily observed scenes that quite simply do not add up to one satisfying play. Once the children are sold, and the images of their lostness keep popping up, the satire gets somewhat blunted. Once Harner gets all that he wants for the sacrifices he makes, the play willfully goes off in too many directions. There is delight to be found in some of the byways, but the play keeps falling apart rather than coming together. The director, Evan Cabnet,  was apparently a last minute replacement, but it is the play itself that needed inspection, not the staging.

 

The real question in the play is just what the gingerbread house itself represents. Is it where the children go once they are sold? Or is it the magic place their parents are promised in return for their sacrifice? Who has lost their way?  The parents or the children? Who has forgotten to toss the crumbs that might lead to their salvation? Who, in the end, has been saved? Even the YouTube generation of theatergoers, in their pursuit of more immediate and relevant theater, deserve a play and not just the promise of a play. One looks forward to Mark Schultz’s next opus. And one can recommend this play for its promise and for the generosity of its performances and for the sometimes startling effects of Ben Stanton’s lighting, which perhaps captures most precisely the tone of the play. But The Gingerbread House is like a suitcase crammed with talent which nobody knows where to take.

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

all photos are by Carol Rosegg

 

 
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