Sunday, August 27, 2017

If Only

The press info for Thomas Klingenstein's play, If Only, includes the following description:
In 1860 Abraham Lincoln came to New York City where he befriended a well-educated ex-slave, and a young, spirited woman from New York’s social class. In the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln brought them together. A romantic relationship ensued but one that neither could acknowledge. Now, thirty-six years later they meet again. They long for each other. For what might have been had Lincoln lived. His assassination changed forever their fate and the fate of a nation.
After the show ended last night, my theatre companion said that she had gotten more out of this description than from the play. Unfortunately, I agreed with her.

If Only begins with the clumsy device of having Ann Astorcott (Melissa Gilbert) read a story from her journal to her ward. This exposition-dump is a slow way to begin a play, plus Gilbert tells the tale turned away from much of the audience. (Characters not facing the audience turns out to be a consistent flaw in the direction. The first time I saw one of the actor's full face was well into the play. Instead of talking heads, they provide talking profiles.)

As time goes on, more stories will be read, and some of Lincoln's speeches will be intoned, by both Ann and her would-be suitor Samuel Johnson (Mark Kenneth Smaltz). However, the play is supposed to get its propulsion from the sexual tension between the two old friends, which should be constantly simmering under their interactions. Sad to say, the production is simmer-free. If Only comes across more as a history lesson than a love story.

The set, designed by William Boles, is quite attractive. The costumes, designed by Kimberly Manning, are largely effective, although the bodice of Gilbert's dress had a distracting crease along her bosom. I kept wanting her to straighten it. The lighting design, by Becca Jeffords, is pretty but occasionally heavy-handed. Christopher McElroen's direction does no favors to Klingenstein's play, which, while clunky, could have more life to it.

It's hard to judge how good or bad the performers are, but if Gilbert and Smaltz had more--or any--chemistry, the production would be much improved.

Wendy Caster
(4th row, press ticket)

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