Three rooms, two couples and an odd man out, and three scenes which tell the same story from different angles. Irene (Lori Faiella) and Calvin (Stephen Zinnato) are in formal wear; Paddy (Christopher Burke) and Edmund (Rob Cameron) are more casual (but certainly presentable); and Brandon (Roger Dale Stude) is having some trouble getting dressed. These are the players in Scott C. Sickles's From the Top, directed by Max Montel, a knowing, inventive play that is confusing, maddening, and ultimately moving. That it succeeds at all is a tribute to the magic of theater, but the vehicle's gears grind a bit before the transmission catches.
Calvin and Irene welcome Edmund and his new boyfriend, Paddy, an Irishman, to Brandon's apartment. They're all getting ready to go, well, somewhere, with Brandon holding up the proceedings with his sartorial difficulties. There's plenty of tension, but no real explanation for it. Irene, an actress, is pissed because of a play Calvin wrote about an actress, but something in Faiella's performance suggested that's not the real reason for the tension. Paddy is Eddie's first relationship with a man (not counting prior tentative fumblings), but that's not it either. Because of the way the set was designed, living room, kitchen and bedroom were all visible, and Brandon was in the back, glum and depressed. Since it wasn't clear who these people are to each other, it was a struggle to see the point of the stories they told, no matter how amusing. Irene has a semi-funny story about Calvin being a seamstress, the purpose of which seems to be to keep Eddie from seeing Brandon, but he finally breaks through and tells him how he met Paddy, and how he's afraid of saying he loves him. With Brandon's encouragement, he goes for it; end of Act I
For Act II, the set revolved, and the kitchen was front and center. But rather than starting from the top, the scene begins earlier than Act I, with Irene and Cal disagreeing on the point of their relationship -- Cal's made their lives too public (so maybe that was what all the tension was about) and Irene wants to break up. Edmund and Paddy come to the door, and we get the same scene as before -- from a different angle, but still without explanation of the tension. New scenes alternate with ones just seen, some detail is offered, and characters withhold information from each other. Communication, miscommunication -- but the point of it all is still elusive, even when the writing offers a heartfelt speech by Irene about seeing different productions of The Cherry Orchard at different points in her life. (Allusion noted.) But there is a dramatic breakthrough in Cal and Irene's relationship, and Paddy fills in missing information. End of Act II, but visibility is still impaired.
For Act III, the set revolved again, and we were mostly in Brandon's bedroom. And again, rather than from the top, Act III begins even earlier, with Cal and Irene arriving at Brandon's. And the clouds break, and dramatic sunshine floods the stage. Brandon, a stage director with an affinity for quoting from movies, tells of a terrible rehearsal of a new play, and he explains the basis of the tension that's been pervading the stage since the beginning. Without going into plot-spoiling detail, it is now clear why he's been moping, and Irene's second telling of her Cherry Orchard story has a far more dynamic point. Stude, now front and center, was very, very good, and From the Top finally had a center, and a heart. The tension about Irene and Cal's relationship was defused, and the repeated scene between Eddie and Brandon now had depth. We even find out why they are all together, and where they are going.
So stay put and bide your time during the first two parts -- the payoff is worth it. The set-up is a playwright's trick, but the actors were game, with Faiella and Zinnato becoming more warm and charming as we slowly learned what's up. Cameron and Burke were at a disadvantage, being something of a deus ex machina, but they generated tons of good will. Alexander Tepper's set served its purpose, even if it obscured some action because of architectural needs. Clifford Capone's costumes and Mick Voytko's lighting matched the milieu, and the strains of "I Wish You Love" at the end gave it all a bittersweet tone. There are lots of theatrical in-jokes for a savvy audience, and if the primary point of the play is that friends keep an awful lot of information from each other, perhaps the secondary point is that if you're invited somewhere, always go formal. It couldn't hurt.
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Copyright 2003 David Mackler