Out From Under It

By Susan Bernfield
Directed by Alexandra Aron
Vital Theatre Company
432 West 42nd Street, 2nd fl. (212/592-1029; www.vitaltheatre.org)
Equity showcase (closes July 19)
Review by Brittney Jensen

Joanna, the main character in Out from Under It, is having trouble with "the time thing." Which is understandable, since she just woke up from a three-year-coma. Vital Theatre Company's polished production of Susan Bernfield's new play explores the audience's relationship to time through Joanna's return to normal life. "What is normal?" is one more important question among several this engaging if somewhat talky piece asks.

In the opening scene we meet Joanna, a workaholic who hates interruptions. To her frustration, the day is full of interruptions, in the form of a mom who drops by the office, an unfocused friend/co-worker, the year's first snow, and, more pleasantly, a second date with charming Calvin.

During the date, Joanna fights the distraction of falling in love when life deals her the biggest interruption -- a devastating illness that instantly knocks her into deep sleep. After she mysteriously wakes up, Joanna copes with her changed relationship with her mother, sister, co-worker, and lover in a series of short scenes. Not only did she miss the last three years of their lives, she also has the burden of being a "concern." She shares this condition with her doctor's sister, a breast-cancer survivor whom Joanna imagines when she needs understanding from someone else labeled seriously ill.

The competent ensemble, directed by Alexandra Aron, brought a level of reality to what could be a melodramatic set-up. Addie Johnson as Joanna, Pamela Dunlap as her demanding mother, Christy Meyers as her distant sister, Alison Weller as her assistant-turned-boss, and Saxon Palmer as the charismatic Calvin all provided comic and heartfelt moments. Camilla Enders displayed remarkable versatility in a double role as the no-nonsense doctor and the doctor's warm-and-fuzzy sister.

Lauren Helpern's attractive minimalist set (white walls, white tables, and two white chairs) effectively portrayed numerous settings with the help of a clever projection system, operated by Suada Perezic. The rich, colorful lighting and costumes (by Diana D. Fairchild and Oana Boetz-Ban, respectively) aided in making the production design a work of art in itself.

The challenge with a play this intelligent is converting the ideas into actions and creating emotionally engaging characters and situations. Bernfield mostly meets this challenge; the characters are three-dimensional and sympathetic, but occasionally they seem to morph into mouthpieces for the playwright's abstract musings. Joanna's dialogue, full of disconnected fragments, is more poetry than speech, and Johnson didn't always succeed in making it sound like organic language. The characters tend to talk instead of do, and as a result, despite the intriguing situation, dramatic tension wanes rather than grows as the play progresses.

Not that Out from Under It was ever boring. The acting was so good, the writing so clever, and the visuals so striking that time, at least for this 90 minutes, pleasantly flew.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Sets: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2003 Brittney Jensen