The Spirit Moves

Muddy Waters earns a bravo! New Jewish, not so much.

Eventually the family leaves; father and son are awkwardly alone together. Then the doorbell rings and who should come sweeping in but Shirley (Kat Singleton). Here's where the already-askew plot goes cockeyed. Not because Shirley is a ghost, but rather because everyone is so determined to make her a funny ghost.

New Jewish Theatre is hawking this play as a Jewish Blithe Spirit. It's not. In Blithe Spirit(as in Hamlet, as in It's a Wonderful Life) the ghost is quite selective about choosing who can see it. Most of the comedy in Blithe Spiritemanates from jokes about "What do you mean you can't see her? She's right there!" In this play everyone can see Shirley. Nor is there any admonition that "When you wake up in the morning you'll forget I was here." She's here to stay. That's the premise, and it's a serious premise. To compare this script to the escapism of Blithe Spirit — and to perform it that way — does Margulies a disservice. (Granted, he didn't help himself with that clunky title.)

So if What's Wrong with this Picture? is not a Jewish Blithe Spirit, what is it? It's a Jewish Our Town. More specifically, it is a variation on Act Three of Our Town (subtitled "Death"), in which Emily, who has died much too young, is allowed to return to the real world for one day. At the end of her unexpectedly painful visit, the spectral Emily utters one of the most poignant lines in the American theater: "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you." Margulies takes that discovery away from the dead and bestows it on the living. It's the son who finally, sadly, asks his ghostly mother, "How am I going to miss you if you won't go?"

Ghost world: John Kinney (left) and Kat Singleton in  What's Wrong with This Picture?
Kristi Foster
Ghost world: John Kinney (left) and Kat Singleton in What's Wrong with This Picture?

Details

After the Fall
Through May 13 at Theatre at St. Johnís, St. Johnís United Methodist Church, 5000 Washington Place (at Kingshighway). Tickets are $16 ($13 for students and seniors). Call 314-540-7831 or visit www.muddywaterstheatre.com.

Whatís Wrong with this Picture?
Through May 20 at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus, Creve Coeur. Tickets are $20 to $25 ($2 discount for seniors and JCC members). Call 314-442-3283 or visit www.newjewishtheatre.org.

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In his foreword to the current published text of Our Town, Margulies recalls the lasting impact of having seen the 1988 Lincoln Center staging of Thornton Wilder's play: "I was mesmerized by its subversive power, warmed by its wisdom, shattered by its third act." This, at a time when his own script was still in its formative drafts. But over the years productions of What's Wrong have veered away from the play's originality and have chosen to go for the laughs to the exclusion of all else. Here, in an amiable production directed by Edward Coffield, we meet a Shirley who's perky enough for cheerleading tryouts. In Alan Knoll's Mort we see one of our town's ablest comic actors playing to his strengths, but he hasn't been asked to render compassion — which is what this evening needs if its boldness is to be realized.

Among the principals, the only actor who fully appreciates the play's delicate balance is John Kinney as the son. Kinney seems to understand that comedy is rooted in reality. This knowledge will serve him well next October when New Jewish stages Neil Simon's Broadway Bound.

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