Stray Dog took a scalpel to Miss Reardon. An ax would've worked better.By Dennis Brown
It's easy to get irked when a theater company revisits a venerable three-act play, then takes a wrecking ball to its structure by eliminating the second intermission. But the smartest decision director Gary F. Bell made regarding And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, currently on view at Stray Dog Theatre, was to cut the completely unnecessary interlude between Acts Two and Three. Alas, Bell did not go far enough. He should have cut the first intermission too. The action in this malodorous soap opera is continuous; there's no need to pause. Nor, in an already brief show, do you want audiences spending fifteen minutes thinking about how little has transpired in Act One.
The primary problem with Paul Zindel's 1971 play is that there is no play. Oh sure, there's a plot. It concerns Anna Reardon (Colleen M. Backer), a high school chemistry teacher who has been suspended after doing something bad. Some tentative hints about Anna's malfunction (from expendable supporting characters who promptly vanish without a trace) are vehemently denied by her protective sister Catherine (Margeau Baue Steinau). Typical of the play's confusion, Anna seems to be the focus here, yet the caustic Catherine is the title character. Then sister Ceil (Kirsten Wylder) arrives, and — in addition to a zucchini dinner — is treated to heaps of back story. This script is straight out of Playwriting 101: laughs up front, yelling at the end. Almost everything of consequence that occurs in Miss Reardon has already happened before the story begins.
All three actresses are saddled with underdeveloped characters that have little to do but talk past each other. Then, in the elongated Act Two, a neighbor arrives and neatly puts what little play there is into her purse. If we find Fleur Stein more interesting than the three sisters, perhaps it's because Fleur actually wants something: a better job. Her lively presence on stage fills a nigh-fatal void. Liz Hopefl succeeds in squeezing most of the juice out of the script's only well-written role.
Maybe it's all Chekhov's fault. He made it look so easy. His Three Sisters spawned a genre of family chronicles by playwrights who think they too can make absorbing drama out of the ephemeral bonds of sisterhood. Rarely, as in Crimes of the Heart, these efforts succeed; more often (The Sisters Rosensweig) they do not. It also may be that in Vietnam-era 1971, Zindel thought he was saying something important — not only about family tearing — but about changing times in a perilous America. So the dim Fleur waxes on about "the collapse of our modern world." Suffice to say, Miss Reardon is no Three Sisters.
Despite these criticisms, it also should be noted that it's good to be able to take a fresh look at seldom-staged plays. There's no drearier prospect for the frequent theatergoer than a constant loop of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Crucible. With the passing of time, less-visible works often turn out to be highly satisfying. That was certainly true of Stray Dog's last offering, Tennessee Williams' infrequently seen Suddenly Last Summer. And it's likely to be the case again next June when Stray Dog offers Paul Osborn's Morning's at Seven, which does Chekhov one better by telling a tale of four sisters.
But there is a vast difference between the two Pauls. Osborn's Morning's at Seven is one of the most underrated treasures in all American theater, a timelessly charming comedy that every generation needs to rediscover. (Mark your calendar now.) Zindel's thin opus turns out to be a lesser script by a lesser playwright. Like its dotty heroine, Miss Reardon is ready to be put away.
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