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Mary Stuart

New Year's Eve

Marlo Thomas gives a smashing performance in Arthur Laurents' disappointing new play.

By New Jersey
Marlo Thomas in New Year's Eve
(© George Street Playhouse)
Marlo Thomas in New Year's Eve
(© George Street Playhouse)
"So we're a revival of Design for Living, it's old hat," says aging actress Isabel, played by the charismatic Marlo Thomas in Arthur Laurents' disappointing new play, New Year's Eve, at New Brunswick's George Street Playhouse. She's advising her rising soap star daughter Samantha (Natasha Gregson Wagner), who wants to know what to say should the magazine journalist ask about her parents' open marriage. It's an unfortunate line -- even though Thomas delivers it with easy élan -- because it jogs the memory about what this play is going for and never delivers.

As in a Coward play, the characters are glamorous. Isabel and her husband Gil, a successful playwright (played by the ever-dashing Keith Carradine) have Academy and Tony Awards sitting in their living room (elegantly designed by James Youmans). As in a Coward play, there are tuxedos and satin pajamas (by Suzy Benzinger). Snippets of Gershwin tunes on piano ease the many set changes. There is even some risqué sexuality in Gil's affair with Justin, the family's accountant (Peter Frechette). A fifth character, Mikey (Walter Belenky), a young optometrist (at least, we're told he makes eyeglasses) has an on-again, off-again sexual relationship with Samantha, to whom he talks dirty. He also babysits her four-year old daughter from a previous marriage.

But it takes more than cummerbunds and Gershwin to conjure Coward. Jokes about hearing aids and a nanny with botox never rise to the level of real wit. More importantly, the play lacks Coward's driving sense of structure and theme. Laurents' intriguing characters never find a strong story; for example, we never even hear about the above-mentioned interview again. Over the course of a year -- from one New Year's Eve to the next -- we discover a variety of things: Gil is sexually obsessed with nerdy Justin. Isabel feels resentful of her daughter's new-found fame, but not too much. Justin develops colon cancer. If it weren't for the symmetry of the holidays, the play could end anytime or just keep going.

David Saint's direction works in fits and starts; when the pace slows down, it slows down too much. Still, Thomas is funny, forceful, and powerfully present; just watching a thought flit across her face is a delight. She plays some wonderful center-stage speeches, instructing the others about their motivations, with aplomb. Her Isabel has depth, originality, beauty, and wit. But even she has trouble finding an arc for Isabel, beyond a slightly gnawing loneliness.

The rest of the cast fares less well. Wagner is gorgeous, but Samantha's a bore. Despite Carradine's charisma, his Gil has little to do besides French-kiss Justin and reassure Isabel. Frechette's pouty Justin is largely a foil for the glamorous characters, as is Belenky's Mikey, and neither seems sexy enough to justify the way the others respond to them. Ultimately, you sense that Laurents' heart isn't with them. The play's beating heart is all for Thomas.


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