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Theatre in Review: One November Yankee (Delaware Theatre Company/59E59)

Harry Hamlin, Stefanie Powers. Photo: Matt Urban at NüPOINT Marketing.

In One November Yankee --- a play that twists itself into pretzels for reasons that remain mysterious -- the writer, Joshua Ravetch, invents a tripartite sibling act. Harry Hamlin and Stefanie Powers appear as Ralph and his sister Maggie -- he is a conceptual artist and she is a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. He is about to open an exhibition there that features his sculpture of a crashed single-engine airplane. As it happens, the work is based on a real incident and darn it if, a little while later, Hamlin and Powers don't return as Harry and his sister Margo, who, five years earlier, are trying to survive the crash of their single-engine plane in New Hampshire. (They are on the way to Florida to attend their father's latest wedding.) But hold on -- soon after, the stars re-enter as Ronnie and Mia, siblings dogged by a family tragedy, who are hiking through the mountains of New Hampshire, where they find a crashed single-engine airplane and some scattered body parts -- no prizes for guessing whose.

Exactly what these plots have to do with each other, despite their single degree of separation, is unclear, but Ravetch certainly works overtime linking them up. In addition to being founded on sibling relationships, each strand of One November Yankee makes use of the same plot elements, reshuffling them like a deck of cards. These include a bottle of Evian water, a tank of tropical fish, a remarried father, hypothermia, caricatures by Al Hirschfeld, and Mount Rushmore. The siblings are close but generally pretty spiky with each other. Maggie, Margo, and Mia have lengthy marital histories, while Ralph, Harry, and Ronnie seemingly have no attachments -- although Ralph gets a quickie in the ladies' room with one of the museum's biggest donors.

What, you may wonder, is the purpose of all this fearful symmetry? Beats the hell out of me. One November Yankee leans in the direction of sophisticated comedy in the first sequence, then settles for some mild familial sparring in the second, more or less ignoring the fact that the characters are caught up in an unfolding tragedy. The third part is more of the same -- Ronnie and Mia are still working out their feelings about a deceased sibling, who left the world a mere twenty-two years earlier -- and, like the second, offers no discernible punch line. There are some indications, late in the action, that the characters are wrestling with the fact of a random universe, but any larger theme remains unexpressed. The action returns to Ralph and Maggie for a finale of little consequence, but at least you find out what the Times' critic thinks of Ralph's artwork. (Do artists and curators really sit around on opening night waiting for the reviews, like show folk at Sardi's fifty years ago?) The script is intricately wrought, yet it remains a curiosity, rather like a model of the White House built out of sugar cubes or Noah's Ark built to scale out of popsicle sticks.

It is also oddly divorced from reality. What are the chances that Maggie would commission an expensive artwork from her own relative, sight unseen, only to get a first look at it just before the donors' reception begins? Or that MoMA would allow it? Ralph, she notes, is "considered one of the top three modern artists in the world by every major critic outside New York," adding, "You were discovered in the hinterlands by provincial critics and not by the New York aristocracy" -- as if he were a regional theatre playwright hoping to break through on Broadway. Ralph explains his plane crash piece as a picture of "civilization in ruins," a laughable generalization that wouldn't get him a BA at Parsons, let alone a show at the biggest contemporary art museum in the world.

The Margo -- Harry plot is no better. No attempt is made to explain what a librarian (her) and a novelist manqué (him) are doing swanning around in private planes. Matters aren't helped by Margo's admission that she failed to file a flight plan and skipped gassing up before takeoff. "I was thinking about my marriage ending and our dad's second one beginning and I waved off the gas guy because I was fighting back tears," she says. Nor are we spared lame ethnic jokes of the kind Broadway hasn't seen in decades. "This doesn't happen to people like us," Harry insists, meaning, "Jewish intellectuals." "It's the kind of thing you read about in The New York Times and it's always rich Republican goyim." Ravetch doubles down on this gag: When Ronnie and Mia are picking through the wreckage, she suggests marking the spot with a cross. "I wouldn't do that," Ronnie says. "They might have been Jewish." "Jews don't fly planes," she deadpans.

Hamlin and Powers, both looking impossibly soigné at their respective ages, lend their natural expertise and charm to this strangely fruitless enterprise. Especially as Maggie, Powers displays a martini-dry delivery that would stand her in good stead in circumstances that require real wit. Even when sporting a wig seemingly lifted from Pippi Longstocking (as Mia), she retains a certain élan. Working with very little, Hamlin creates three distinct characters; he is all but unrecognizable as Harry and Ronnie. Without the support of the playwright, however, he can't make them interesting.

Ravetch, who also directed, seems to be content with skating across the surface of each situation, and he has overseen a production design that, like the play, is both impressive and a head-scratcher. Dana Moran Williams' set, dominated by the plane, facing nose-down, makes a strong visual statement even as it takes up most of the stage. Presumably, Williams also provided the projections, which rely heavily on vintage films of early aircraft, set to the jarringly jaunty theme of the 1965 slapstick film epic Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. (The sound design is by Lucas Campbell). Kate Bergh's costumes -- aside from those dubious wigs -- and Scott Cocchiaro's lighting are okay.

One November Yankee is the second attraction I've come across in the last few days -- the other is Harry Townsend's Last Stand -- that plays like a star package airlifted from the straw-hat circuit. It would be fun to see these stars under any circumstances, but here they are trapped in a vehicle that remains stuck on the runway. -- David Barbour

(9 December 2019)

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