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Theatre in Review: This Beautiful Future (Cherry Lane Theatre)

Austin Pendleton, Uly Schlesinger, Angelina Fiordellisi, Francesca Carpanini. Photo: Emilio Madrid

The set onstage at the Cherry Lane is striking, if not exactly appealing: a purple velour interior, with curved walls at stage right and upstage windows disclosing a stark hallway. The only furnishings are a mattress and a couple of pillows. (Extending the color scheme, the auditorium is infused with a purple wash from LED strips and downlights.) It could be the back room of an '80s-era night club or a hot-sheet motel -- the kind with themed suites. Which is why it's a bit of a shock to open the program and discover that Rita Kalnejais' play is set in Chartres, France, in World War II. You know Chartres: Nice town. Very medieval. Big cathedral. Giant rose window with gorgeous stained glass.

Clearly, something is off, but what? This Beautiful Future focuses on the star-crossed affair of Elodie, a local girl, and Otto, a German soldier. For discretion's sake, they meet in the home formerly occupied by the Levi family, who were arrested; since they've been away, the local youths have been using it as a trysting place. "Mrs. Levi will be pissed when she gets back," Elodie says. "She won't be coming back, Elodie," says Otto, who knows a thing or two about concentration camps. On the other hand, Otto believes that his regiment, which is decamping in the morning, is about to invade England. But it is August 1944: "Do you have a radio, Otto?" asks Elodie, who clearly follows the news more closely than her lover.

In truth, Elodie and Otto are both so naïve as to seem simple-minded. In addition to her ignorance of the Final Solution and his cockeyed belief that a German victory is at hand, neither seems to have thought through the implications of their romance. Indeed, they inhabit a world of their own, divorced from the ugly realities of war. For example, Elodie apparently hasn't heard that young ladies who sleep with the enemy usually end up tarred and feathered for their pleasures. The stain of collaboration is not easily washed away.

If this seems a too-obvious setup, Kalnejais' handling of it is, initially, quite gripping as the couple's idyll is disturbed by a series of revelations. These include Otto's contempt for his blind father, his admiration for Hitler, and the news that, this very day, he has killed a friend of Elodie's family, along with dozens of others, as part of a firing squad. Elodie is a kooky, coltish creature with a dangerous edge. Among other things, she is surprisingly pleased to see a local church bombed to bits, she claims to have been possessed by the spirit of a local pervert and, most notably, is subject to epileptic fits. They are complicated, mismatched young people, adolescents thrown together by a world-historical nightmare, and their liaison couldn't be more ill-advised; indeed, they are careening toward disaster and, at first, it's impossible to look away.

But there's that out-of-left-field set (by Frank J. Oliva, no doubt doing his director's bidding) and, even stranger, the frequent appearances of Austin Pendleton and Angelina Fiordellisi (as "Austin" and "Angelina"), crooning pop standards with their handheld mics. (A karaoke machine is visible upstage.) Most of them are of wartime vintage, including "I Can Dream, Can't I?" and "Scatter-Brain." A bombing incident cues "Boom! Why Does My Heart Go Boom?" Then again, an unsettling speech by Otto about the rock-star effect of a Hitler tirade -- a fascinating and timely depiction of fascism's allure for lost souls -- is matched with the Fleetwood Mac classic "Dreams." (How were these numbers selected? Were they picked out of a hat?) These distractions are more than annoying; it's rather like trying to watch a gripping TV drama while someone keeps changing the channels.

Also, when trouble finally comes for Elodie and Otto, Kalnejais drags it out unconscionably, scrambling the time frame for sledgehammer ironies. The most obvious of these is the finale, depicting a false dawn complete with a live baby chick onstage as a risible symbol of soon-to-be-shattered hopes. The trouble is, we're way ahead of Elodie and Otto; by the time they describe their sad fates in dueling monologues, we have already imagined them.

Anyway, the director, Jack Serio, gets fine work from his two young leads. Francesca Carpanini, who made a good impression in the Roundabout revival of All My Sons a few seasons back, captures Elodie's high-strung, high-maintenance qualities, her innocence spiked with a slight sadistic streak. With his baby face and surprisingly gentle manner, Uly Schlesinger is both touching and a tad monstrous, a Nazi true believer with an authentically sensitive side. Pendleton and Fiordellisi comport themselves like the pros they are, although their unsteady warbling is not a pleasure to the ear.

The other production elements, including Ricky Reynoso's costumes, Stacey Derosier's lighting, Christopher Darbassie's sound, and Lacey Erb's minimal projections, are solid. As a workout for two fine young acting talents, This Beautiful Future has its moments. But what could have been a brief, strikingly written two-hander can't bear the weight of so many high-concept elements, all of them strangely irrelevant to the main action. A pity; this is a lily stifled by an excess of gilding. --David Barbour

(20 September 2022)

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