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Theatre in Review: My Brilliant Divorce (Fallen Angel Theatre Company/New Ohio Theatre)

Melissa Gilbert. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

As divorces go, the one detailed in Geraldine Aron's 2001 solo piece is at best an average affair, culled from a dozen chick-lit novels and an uncountable number of movies and plays dating back to when Jill Clayburgh found herself footloose and fancy free in An Unmarried Woman. It begins when Rachel Lipsky Haringay, an American window dresser, retired and in her forties, discovers that her husband, Winston, a British accountant, is leaving her for a twentysomething Brazilian bombshell. (As Vanessa, her all-seeing adult daughter, notes, all those "business trips" Winston took were mostly about monkey business.) Not long after, Vanessa heads off to Aruba with her drummer boyfriend, the unfortunately named Hotstix Multino. Suddenly, Rachel is alone with her dog, Axel, in her London house, wondering what comes next. Over the next ninety minutes, she gets her groove back, in the most predictable fashion.

The script is a scrapbook of scenes you've witnessed many times before: the phone calls with Rachel's kvetchy Jewish mother, who disapproves of Winston but blames Rachel for losing him; the gay best friend, advising her on every move; the lament that newly single women don't get invited to dinner parties; the tense, embarrassed expedition to purchase a vibrator; the unsatisfactory foray into the world of middle-age dating; the awful first post-marriage sexual encounter; the awkward run-ins with Winston and his current arm candy; the moment when Winston, in tears, all but demands to return home; and, finally, the new love interest, who emerges when Rachel least expects it.

Of course, well-worn stories can be redeemed by a fresh point of view, and Aron has some fun with Rachel's tortuous progress toward self-actualization: "My mother was disappointed," she confides about her choice of Winston, the gentile. "I'd not only married out, but turned down Rafey Cohen, the luggage king, whose family kept a whole side of smoked salmon hanging on a hook in their kitchen, just for snacks." It's amusing when Rachel, showing some claws, takes to calling her rival "the Brazilian embryo," and when she discloses that she keeps tabs on her ex via a network of Polish cleaning women -- Meena, employed by Rachel, has a sister, Leena, who works for Winston -- who provide scathing intel about his supposedly Edenic new household.

In fact, so much of My Brilliant Divorce plays like an extended comedy routine that when Aron tries to introduce more serious moments, including a botched suicide attempt, they feel out of place; they also have a dampening effect on the laughter. In its later passages, Rachel's path to happiness involves so many detours, one gets restless and wonders if there isn't a more direct route. The mildly diverting script should be much cleverer to justify this trip over familiar terrain. And certain jokes -- Rachel's penchant for handing out amateur medical diagnoses and a running gag about the size of Winston's penis -- wear out their welcome all too quickly.

Melissa Gilbert, who stars, isn't really the kind of New York wisecracker specified in the script, but she is pleasant company and has certain strengths, including a genuine sense of vulnerability. Her knack for comic business is an asset, especially when, deciding to come down off the shelf, she totters around, unsteadily, in a pair of fire-engine-red high heels, and when, twisting her mouth into an inverted U and speaking in a robotic deadpan, she impersonates her Bell's Palsy-afflicted divorce lawyer. Gilbert also has a knack for self-transformation: Pulling a shawl around herself, in a moment of depression, she shrinks into a loveless old woman; a few minutes later, she stands up straight, pulls back her hair, and, glowing, becomes the picture of youth and health.

Arguably, Aedín Moloney's direction could have done more to add a sense of urgency to the later passages, and the production design is less than ideal. John McDermott's set, a series of vertical banners imprinted with an abstract array of color splashes, seems rather arbitrary, more designed to fill the space than to make a statement. Jessica M. Kasprisin's lighting is more successful, creating different looks for a winter exterior, a dance club, a train, and one of Rachel's dreams; it also suggests fireworks displays -- using gobos -- to note the passing of yet another Guy Fawkes Day (also the anniversary of Winston moving out). M. Florian Staab's unusually complex sound design deploys an army of necessary effects, including slamming doors, a barking dog, the theme music from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, airplanes, and Rachel's many phone conversations.

The audience at the performance I attended appeared to be having a perfectly fine time, and if you're in the mood for an evening of easy jokes about the plight of the newly single middle-aged female, My Brilliant Divorce might pass muster. (If, earlier in the season, you saw Curvy Widow, never mind; you've already covered this material.) But, by the time Rachel, acting on her therapist's advice, decides that she "should fall in love with, propose to, accept, and marry myself. And love, honor and cherish myself, until death do me part," I'm afraid I no longer cared to attend the reception. -- David Barbour

(21 March 2018)

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