The Review: TFANA’s About Alice
I admit, right off the bat, that I did not know about the writer, Calvin Trillin, and because of the timing of my arrival to New York City, I never did read his column in The New Yorker, making it virtually impossible for me to know About Alice. But thanks to Jeffrey Horowitz, Artistic Director of the Theatre for a New Audience for his deep need and desire to have Trillin’s loving portrait of his marriage to Alice Stewart Trillin (1938-2001) brought to the stage, that all this is possible, and what a loving gift it is, for us, and for Alice. This tribute, based on the memoir of the same name, is about as lovely and touching as a play could be. We adore her, almost from the get go, as she is everything, I think, that we value in another human being: intelligence, wit, style, grace, and beauty. I’d wager that most of what we hear About Alice from her husband is basically true, at least the Alice that Trillin remembers and sees in his mind’s eye. And we are thankful for that vantage point, because without it, the writer of such pieces and stories: ‘Tepper Isn’t Going Out’, ‘Obliviously On He Sails’, ‘Family Man’, wouldn’t have been able to share such a story of warmth, engagement, and love so beautifully.
Starring the delightfully tuned in Jeffrey Bean (PH’s The Thanksgiving Play) as the love struck writer and “marginally goofy husband”, the play is a “one ham show” revolving around the glowing Carrie Paff (A.C.T.’s King Charles III) as his eternally gorgeous wife, Alice. She’s his center piece in a chaotic world, and had he not wandered into that certain party one memorable night long ago, his marriage to the “coolest girl” in town might never have come to be. It’s like a romantic fairy tale with not the happiest of endings, but that we know right from the start. And even thought the set up is sad, the overall energy is sentimental and playful, much like, what I imagine Trillin’s writing most likely is like. There is an ease and wink, accompanied by a teary-eyed smile of love and sadness that fits the space, even when the piece isn’t quite solid or strong enough for the stage and this grand theatre.
As directed with an almost too gentle hand by Leonard Foglia (Broadway’s Master Class), Alice gets rushed on and off the simple stage designed by Riccardo Hernandez (Broadway’s Caroline, or Change), with perfectly aligned structural lighting by Russell H. Champa (PH’s Log Cabin), solid sound design by Joshua Schmidt (RTC’s Thérèse Raquin), and with slightly too simplistic projection design by Elaine J. McCarthy (2ST’s Notes From the Field). “They never really knew me“, she says, as she quickly changes her costume time and time again, beautiful and elegantly designed by David C. Woolard (Broadway’s The Rocky Horror Show), about ten too many times. It’s really unnecessary, these changes and the exits and entrances, making her almost gallop off, only to run back on one entrance to another, as Bean’s Trillin gets to sit back and relax. It seems unfair, and oddly complicated, when some stillness would have served the piece better.
Will we love Alice as much as Calvin loves Alice? That is the question that is basically asked time and time again, but without much depth to her portrait, I’d say it would be hard not to, as we are seeing this through a grieving husband’s sad eyes. As I made my way home from the wonderful Polonsky Shakespeare Center, on the Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage where Theatre for a New Audience has the grace and glory to call home, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a pop song that was all about love, and I couldn’t get the song out of my head. “More Than Words” and About Alice is really all about love. They are synonymous. The play is gentle and funny, touching and romantic, kind and gentle, just like the Alice that hangs around the theatre reminding us all what love looks and feels like. It doesn’t have a driving force throughout, nor, for some reason, does it pack the highest of emotional punches, maybe because we know how it all is going to end from the very beginning. So as a piece of dramatic theatre, it sweetly falters a bit on its sentimental legs, but as a tribute, its a gentle sweet hug and loving kiss on the cheek, and not much else.