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Theatre in Review: About Alice (Theatre for a New Audience)

Jeffrey Bean, Carrie Paff. Photo: Henry Grossman.

If you ask me, Theatre for a New Audience has mistimed its latest attraction. About Alice runs through February 3, thereby missing Valentine's Day by a week and a half. An extension is in order, for it is difficult to imagine a more ardent love letter than the one Calvin Trillin has composed to his late wife, Alice. A slightly longer run would do all of us a world of good, for About Alice is an efflorescence of grace in a world that very much needs it.

Trillin, of course, has written about Alice extensively; two of his books reference her in their titles (Alice, Let's Eat and Travels with Alice). As he notes, however, she always figured in his lighter books and stories that turned their marriage into a Burns-and-Allen pairing, gender-flipped with her in the role of Burns, the wisecracking voice of reason. Explaining his need to correct the record, Trillin muses that, after her death, he received many letters from readers who felt they knew Alice, even considered her a friend, without ever having met her. It is no small part of his grief that this is not so, that his portrayal of her as "a dietitian in sensible shoes" (in Alice's rather acid formulation) will outlive her.

About Alice began as a marvelously detailed New Yorker article and was subsequently expanded into a small book. It would seem to offer little to the theatre, and I showed up at Theatre for a New Audience expecting a dramatic reading along the lines of Vanessa Redgrave doing Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. But Trillin has a found a way to transform prose into theatre: Jeffrey Bean, standing in for him, does indeed speak directly to us, often at length, but Carrie Paff's Alice is a constant presence -- laughing, correcting her husband, and generally making clear that she was an incandescent gift to the world. In doing so, Trillin has effectively dramatized his essay, which, on the stage, becomes a two-part invention on the theme of marriage, exploring the unique chemistry that allowed him and Alice to dwell in a pool of light surrounded by lengthy and permanent shadows.

From the moment they met, in 1963, at a party for Monocle, a short-lived magazine -- that, thanks to the many couples who emerged from its wreckage, "was more durable as a marriage brokerage" -- Trillin and Alice were partners in a lifelong verbal tennis match that provided them both with plenty of civilized amusement. "I thought you'd be an interesting person to have to dinner after my boyfriend and I were married," she comments, following a scene depicting his early charm offensive. He trains a cold eye on men who approach her at social events, describing one of them as "smoking the very pipe he intends to be pictured smoking someday on the book jacket of a coming-of-age novel about a sensitive, but remarkably resilient, boy in Flatbush." He was also fond of telling their daughters that Alice -- a stunner in the looks department -- "is a fancy Eastern girl and I am but a simple lad from the Midwest."

Of course, the truth was much darker; it always is. A family friend, speaking at her funeral, "described anyone under Alice's protection as 'anyone she loved, or liked, or knew, or didn't quite know but knew someone who did, or didn't know from a hole in the wall but had just gotten a telephone call from because they'd found the number in the telephone book.'" But her ceaselessly charitable nature was rooted in years of caring for feckless parents whose free-spending ways left the family, despite their apparent wealth, one step away from penury. Given these circumstances, and the deep-seated insecurity they bred in her, it is all the more remarkable that she was able to obtain an advanced degree from Yale before launching a career as a college instructor and producer for educational television.

Even more harrowing was her bout -- in her late thirties -- with lung cancer; happily married with two young daughters, she was given a ten percent chance of survival. But survive she did, paying her debt to good fortune with a gorgeously written essay in the New England Journal of Medicine: "Having cancer," she wrote, "is an embodiment of the existential paradox that we all experience: We feel that we are immortal, yet we know that we will all die. So, we construct talismans to distance ourselves from death -- the magic of doctors, a concentration on the details of daily life (like growing peas in Nova Scotia), the power of will." As she told a young fellow patient, "Illness is not how much you change but how much you stay the same. The worst thing cancer can do is rob you of your identity."

Indeed, Alice's ability to resolutely remain herself in the wake of terrible suffering may be her greatest legacy. And when, much later, her cancer returned, she faced it with the same courage, willing herself to hang on long enough to attend both daughters' weddings. About Alice is far from a conventional play, but, in its exploration of the paradoxical aspects of joy -- its evanescence standing in contradistinction to its profound and lasting effects -- it touches on a tension that informs each of our lives.

Leonard Foglia's blessedly uncluttered staging lets nothing come between us and this peerless pair. Bean, last seen cavorting farcically in The Thanksgiving Play, adopts a lovely throwaway manner that captures Trillin's low-key humor, deftly delivering observations that need a second or two to sink in before their absurdity becomes gloriously apparent. Paff -- dressed in a parade of stylish outfits designed by David C. Woolard -- embodies Alice's militant optimism and sheer delight in living; she also makes palpable her hard-won wisdom about living in the face of the fragility of life. Together, the actors display an easy intimacy that may rouse envy in many in the audience.

The production design -- including Riccardo Hernandez's simple, blond-wood set; Russell H. Champa's elegant lighting; Elaine J. McCarthy's projections, a series of attractively distorted city scenes; and Joshua Schmidt's sound -- exist to provide a subtle setting for the actors and the words. In size and scale, About Alice is a little thing, but under its polished surface lurk profound and enduring emotions. Late in the piece, Alice discovers a letter written by a parent to a severely disabled child of her acquaintance. "Quick. Read this," she tells her husband. "It's the secret of life." Chances are you'll leave the theatre convinced that she knew exactly what she was talking about. -- David Barbour

(22 January 2019)

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