Gerry Bamman and Leslie Lyles in Mrs. Farnsworth(Photo © Ginny Arcari)
Gerry Bamman and Leslie Lyles in Mrs. Farnsworth
(Photo © Ginny Arcari)
"With the election right around the corner, its time to speak out," says the title character of A.R. Gurney's Mrs. Farnsworth. Following a sold-out run this past spring, the acerbic and insightful political comedy returns for what director Jim Simpson has labeled the show's "convention run." It began previews during the Democratic National Convention in Boston and will play through the Republican National Convention in New York, although its doubtful that delegates to the RNC will wander down to the Flea Theatre to catch the production.

A major selling point of the play in its earlier engagement was the star power of Sigourney Weaver as Mrs. Farnsworth and John Lithgow as her husband. Those roles have now been taken over by Leslie Lyles and Gerry Bamman, respectively. Both are experienced and capable actors, albeit lesser known than their predecessors. Danny Burstein, who originated the role of writing teacher Gordon Bell, returns for the current run, as do the three young actors who play students: Kate Benson, Fernando Gambaroni, and Tarajia Morrell.

The play is set in a classroom somewhere in Manhattan, where Gordon is teaching creative writing. The audience forms the class and is witness to the story unveiled by Mrs. Farnsworth, who shares the opening paragraph and outline for her novel-in-progress. She insists that the semi-autobiographical tome is political, and it soon becomes apparent that she's writing a "tell all" account of a scandal that involves none other than George W. Bush.

As played by Lyles, Mrs. Farnsworth is filled with a nervous energy and has an eccentrically off-balanced demeanor. Whereas Weaver's interpretation of the role was extremely mannered and elegant, Lyles is a bit more unkempt; even her hair has a slightly frizzy quality, while Weaver's was perfectly coiffed. Lyles is particularly effective when Mrs. Farnsworth describes an experience undergone by her novel's heroine in Honduras; here, the character displays a vulnerability and emotional connection that gains both Gordon's and the audience's sympathy and makes us convinced of the truthfulness of her narrative -- that is, until her husband walks into the room. Mr. Forrest Farnsworth casts doubt on his wife's tale and hints that she has a history of mental instability. Lyles's manic Mrs. F. gives more credence to this theory than Weaver's portrayal did; as a result, the distinctions between truths, half-truths, and lies become much more blurred.

Danny Burstein and Leslie Lyles in Mrs. Farnsworth(Photo © Ginny Arcari)
Danny Burstein and Leslie Lyles in Mrs. Farnsworth
(Photo © Ginny Arcari)
Bamman presents a harsher characterization of Mr. Farnsworth than did Lithgow, who always had a glint in his eye and a laugh embedded in his upper crust Connecticut accent. Yet, the harshness melts away in the interactions between Forrest and his wife; a genuine love and affection shines through, and Bamman and Lyles have a nice chemistry that makes their rather complex relationship convincing.

As was true of the prior run, the standout performance is Burstein's. His superb comic timing and vibrant theatrical energy drive the action of the play. Simpson's direction likewise remains as crisp as before, and Mrs. Farnsworth remains a thrilling piece of political theater. With wit and humor, Gurney pokes fun at our current president while reminding us -- as a character states in the play -- that "The point is to judge the man on what he is doing now, rather than on what he may or may not have done in the past."