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Brooklynites Kim Zimmer, Jordan Charney, and Jesse Doran
(Photo: Brian Dykstra)
Israela Margalit has a lot to say about marriage, and not much of it is good. Plenty of it is funny, though -- and her talent for zingy one-liners and weary reflection lifts 3 O'Clock in Brooklyn, Margalit's new play at the Access Theater in Tribeca, above the script's difficulties often enough to keep us interested. Known principally as a concert pianist, the multi-talented Margalit has also written for television and has had other stage plays presented in New York, including Night Blooming Jasmine. Her new work, presented by an acting troupe whose leaders boast Broadway and TV credits, showcases the strengths and weaknesses of a writer well traveled in worlds outside the theater.

As the intermissionless play opens, Caroline, a somewhat dowdy woman played by Louisa Flaningam, arrives in a Brooklyn coffee shop to meet her ex-husband, Edgar (Jesse Doran) at the appointed hour of the play's title, in order to commemorate their anniversary. The shop's humble waiter, Marty (Jordan Charney), is a Jewish immigrant from Russia who imparts old-world values to the customers. The actors seem to be playing to the back row of a house a bit larger than this one; still, the performances work in this space, especially Charney's.

The characters don't vary much from our initial impressions of them. Caroline pathetically longs for Edgar -- a man who might cause Dr. Phil to ask Caroline, "How's he workin' for ya?" Though the couple is long divorced, Caroline confesses that she was afraid to sue Edgar for child support in fear that he would be less likely to return to her. Seventeen years later, her continued pining for her ex teeters between the pathetic and the pathological. (When she is gingerly coaxed by Marty to sit at the bar in the empty coffee house -- rendered with astonishing detail by set designer Maruti Evans -- Caroline confesses that she has never sat at a bar before.)

Though the play is set in the present day, Caroline represents the traditional role of a woman pre-liberation -- disempowered and uncertain that she deserves better. When Edgar does appear, we feel even more pity for Caroline in that his unrepentant ego, machismo, and freedom from self-knowledge are compounded by his embarrassing lack of sophistication and his physical decline. That Doran makes Edgar interesting and even charismatic is a testament to his talent and to the steady sense of rhythm and tone that director Margarett Perry displays.

As we watch Caroline go off to visit the washroom or to buy gifts for her ex-husband, we begin to wonder whether the play is going to offer any real emotion or turn into a door-slamming farce. Enter Bridget (Kim Zimmer), Edgar's second wife: a loudmouthed, obsessive-compulsive divorcée from Manhattan who arrives when no one is present in the coffee shop but Marty and a female student who is writing feverishly in the corner. Bridget's meeting with Edgar on the same day and in the same place as Caroline is among the play's more awkward devices; through her energetic performance, however, Zimmer amuses as this hellcat rails about her marriage, men, and diet food to whomever is standing by. Best known as Reva Shayne on the soap opera The Guiding Light, Zimmer romps through a role that, in Magalit's mind, seems to represent the next phase in liberation: achieving independence by getting what you need from your ex-husband in the divorce.

Louisa Flaningam and Jordan Charney in 3 O'Clock in Brooklyn
(Photo: Brian Dykstra)
When Bridget's recent lover Johnathan -- a gay man who is trying out heterosexuality, played with comical intensity by Jeremy Webb -- enters to return her apartment key, we have given up the idea that we're here to see a show concerned with realism. This is a platform for discussion, and the discussions are certainly fun, if not always as insightful or enlightening as we hope they will be. By the end of the evening, marriage has been compared to a sock, a Greek temple -- everything but a bialy made without enough flour. When confrontations finally occur between Edgar and his exes, the dialogue is filled with epigrams and gripes tinged with poignancy but without much real pain or hope. The resolution that Margalit has concocted for Caroline is nice, but the show's best scene involves -- not coincidentally -- music that emanates from an old jukebox. As Maria Callas sings, two characters make a connection which seemed so unlikely earlier in the play that we are astonished by its ultimate plausibility.

What if Margalit had built her play around five or six such risk-taking moments? Alas, this is not the case. The attitude of post-lib generation women toward their social status is gently parodied but seems to be admired by the author in the play's final scenes. The largely peripheral young student played by Erica Piccininni demonstrates, with her boyfriend Rob (also played by Webb), the dance of mutual affirmation mixed with constant awareness of compromise ("let's split the difference and sit at the middle table") that reflects our times. The message seems to be that couples today know what they're up against and need to be hyper-careful in pursuing solid relationships.

In the end, 3 O'Clock in Brooklyn is a fun but overly schematic attempt to address a powerful change in gender roles that has still not been fully absorbed by the men and women who lived through it. The play's view of male-female relationships is palatable in the way that a cup of sherbet in a Brooklyn coffee house is to those who didn't grow up on low-fat, imported sorbet. To judge by the audience's frequent laughter, it also appeals to some who did.

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