Remember that I Love Lucy episode that co-starred Harpo Marx and was a masterpiece of pantomime? Something very much like it happened throughout P. Seth Bauer's delightful Umbrella Play, a play about couples caught in the rain and the permutations of love.
Cindy (Michelle Ammon) and Jay (Charles E. Gerber) are two nutcases who meet on a bench and bond hilariously and wordlessly over the New York Times in between vignettes that feature five other couples. Jay, who resembled one of the more villainous of Christopher Plummer's characters, is one of those people who have a fussy ritual for folding up the Old Gray Lady, and Cindy, wide-eyed and top-knotted, decides she is going to mess him up. At one point they faced off with her opened umbrella against his rolled-up newspaper and went after it like champion fencers; it was brilliant. (By the way, a nod must go to Eric Walton, the magic consultant, for the beautiful, startling way Jay got back at Cindy's mischief.)
The other couples in the play may not have sparred so flamboyantly, but all were linked by a thread of loving kindness. Forced to share umbrellas in the pouring rain, some of the couples warm to each other, like Simone (Pauline Tully) and George (Kurt Elftmann), who meet cute waiting for a taxi. Tully's Simone was a scream; a French lady, she is good at mangling the English language. "Drop on the ground and be dead!" she spits at George at one point before they realize they are in love. The involvement of Celia (Cordis Heard in a bright red raincoat) and Nick (L.B. Williams) is brief. "I'm married," she tells him, coyly and repeatedly, though they do share a kiss under her umbrella.
The essential friendliness of the long marriage of Edna (Jennifer Sage) and Bill (Mack Harrell) is underscored during their own rainy trip into the city, as is the poignancy of the failed romance of Susan (Nicole Taylor) and Michael (Eric Walton) and the care that Sam (Elizabeth Faublas) feels for her incredibly neurotic friend Eve (Lori Faiella). The writing is snappy and the dialogue often drowned in laughter from the audience.
Elysa Marden's direction was fluent and imaginative. Her characters leapt over mud puddles, leapt into mud puddles, pulled their coats up over their heads, and got splashed by careless taxi drivers, evoking a rainy Manhattan day perfectly on a small stage.
Deborah Constantine kept the light bright during the action, as if the characters were living through a sun shower, or to emphasize the production's fundamental optimism. The only sound effect was rain, stopping, starting, becoming loud or quiet in turn. The play ended with a memorial service for an umbrella; the look in Ammon's great bright eyes during the event was priceless.
The Umbrella Play, though some may have found it predictable and sitcommy, was a happy diversion. The one caveat is that the theater was on the fifth floor of a building with no elevator, but the interaction between Cindy and Jay was worth the hike all by itself.
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Copyright 2001 Arlene McKanic