Flight of fancy


Nate and Bette


Written by Julio Tumbaco & Jim Gibson

Directed by Dee Spencer

Produced by JJ Entertainment (www.jjentertainmentmedia.com)

The Studio Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues)

Non-union production (through August 26, 2007)

Reviewed by Judd Hollander


Laughter is often born out of pain, and rarely has that axiom been as true as in the biting and poignant comedy Nate and Bette, currently having a very enjoyable world premiere at the Studio Theatre at Theatre Row.


Living alone in a studio apartment with a menagerie of stuffed animals (which he talks to), 27-year-old Nate (David King) reminds one at first glance of an eccentric uncle; one someone would love to spend time with - if not for too long. His rather eclectic (i.e.,  outlandish) wardrobe and over-the-top gestures and flouncing movements help to complete the image of a bright spirit living just slightly out of society's boundaries and by his own rules. An actor and writer of what can only be called – ahem - questionable talent, Nate in fact seems to have trouble distinguishing fact from fantasy and happens to think he's Nathan Lane. The apartment is a shrine to the well-known thespian with pictures and other memorabilia from Lane's movies and theatrical productions scattered about the excellent set by Elisha Schaeffer.


Trying to bring Nate back to some sort of reality is his world-weary and perennially exhausted sister (about 15 years his senior) Bette (Debbie Klaar). A psychiatrist by trade, Bette has been secretly seeing Nate as a patient, regardless of how many rules this breaks, in a desperate attempt to cure him. However one begins to wonder just how hard Bette is actually trying to help her brother, as she's giving him red pills, which he calls "dolls," and which are actually cinnamon flavored Tic-Tacs. Not to mention letting him ramble on and on about one wild scenario after another while barely pretending to take notes on the subject. She also indulges him at every turn even as he continually drives her to distraction. All the while, she's attempting to wrestle with her own inner demons.


Emotional cripples both, much of their pain (and current situation) stems from their upbringing, specifically their relationship with their still-living mother; who is often referred to as "that witch" or "her," rather than by name. Yet there is more to both of these siblings than meets the eye. In Nate's case there are times, such as when discussing his plans about the musical he has written ("The Valley of the Guys and Dolls") and wanting money from Bette to get the project off the ground, we begin to see a cold, calculating and vindictive undercurrent through the humorous and carefree facade he has fashioned. As for Bette, she has some secrets of her own to reveal and a soul that needs unburdening. And once she gets the protesting Nate to sit still down long enough to listen, things may never be the same.


As the play goes on, the overall air of comedy changes to one of pathos. Where once we were laughing at Nate for his outrageous antics, we begin to feel sorrow and pity for a man who is desperately dancing as fast as he can to keep his oh-so fragile illusions intact. For the real world is simply too much for him to handle. (An audition he goes on is positively heartbreaking). The same is true for Bette, who instead of hiding from the world, seem destined to make the same mistakes again and again.


Julio Tumbaco and Jim Gibson's script nicely combines elements of comedy and drama, and a good directorial hand by Dee Spencer keep the play moving nicely. But ultimately, a work like this lives and dies on the characters we see and the chemistry between them. Fortunately both King and Klaar and are up to the challenge. King is particularly brilliant, basically carrying the piece and holding the stage whenever he appears; flouncing about as if life is one big party, with an almost complete disdain for everyone outside his rose-colored-glasses world. Yet as time goes on we see the loneliness, desperation and anger bubbling inside him, all of which eventually comes roaring to the surface.


Klaar has the harder job of the two as she's playing this tragic sad sack of a figure who is almost totally reactive to Nate and his moods. While she carries herself well and has perfect timing as straight woman to Nate, when she's alone on stage the pace falters somewhat. This is especially true in the beginning of the play (which is the one sequence which really doesn't work). As Bette waits for Nate to emerge from the shower, she goes into a lengthy exposition about what Nate is like and what she goes through when dealing with him. Important information to be sure. but material that could have been relayed so much better by bringing Nate on earlier and changing a few lines of dialogue to make it part of their back and forth conversations.


In addition to the very enjoyable sets, credit must also to go Caren Anhder's flamboyant costumes; all of which perfectly suit the show, especially the hilarious "Brady Bunch" outfit Klaar wears, which is guaranteed to hurt one's eyes. (It's all part of Nate's "perfect family syndrome" as Bette would say.) Lighting by Alex Moore is also good.


Perhaps the best way to describe Nate and Bette would be as a mirror image to The Prodigal, a 1905 play written by St. John Hankin and recently revived by the Mint Theater Company. The Hankin play deals with a man who knows who and what he is, accepting his role in life while forcing everybody else to accept that as well. But in this instance, Nate has his own truth, but makes his family accept just the opposite. And nowhere do we see the two sides of this man more completely on display than in the final moments of the last two scenes. Well done all.


Box Score:


Writing: 1

Directing: 2

Acting: 2

Sets: 2

Costumes: 2

Lighting/Sound: 2


Copyright 2007 Judd Hollander


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