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Doris Belack and Illeana Douglas in Surviving Grace
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
On April 14, 1996, a play by Trish Vradenburg called The Apple Doesn't Fall... opened at the Lyceum and closed the same night. Last night, the same play, now titled Surviving Grace, opened again. Perhaps it could be considered a revival; but, since nowhere on the promotional material is the previous production mentioned, it seems more likely that producer Nina Benton is intent on presenting the play as if it were hot off the presses.

A reference to The Apple Doesn't Fall... is included in Vradenburg's Playbill bio, with the implication that it is a different piece. Here, however, is Doris Belack, who appears as the comedy-drama's title character, speaking on its second coming in Back Stage: "The past is the past. For me, it's the first time." Possibly, Vradenburg has rewritten the play so extensively that she feels within her rights to offer it as a new piece. If so, she hasn't done enough work, nor the right kind. Surviving Grace is one of those shows whose titles tempt unkind remarks, as in: "You may have trouble surviving Grace."

The ineptitude of the play becomes apparent within seconds of the lights going up. They rise on sitcom producer-writer Kate Griswald (Illeana Douglas), who addresses the audience briefly, then answers her constantly ringing cell phone and says: "Listen, Marty, I'm not casting Simon Rudolph. He's unlikable. Cows in Wisconsin refused to give milk until his show was canceled." She continues in this vein for a few more sentences; by the time she's finished, it's clear that not only is the character a sitcom purveyor, she's lodged in a play that's operating on a basic sitcom rule: If the lines aren't funny enough, they can be sweetened by a laugh track. Except that there is no laugh track at Surviving Grace. More to the point, there are no laughs.

To Vradenburg's credit, she is trying something tricky, attempting to deal with Alzheimer's disease in a manner light-hearted enough to keep audiences from merely being depressed by the subject matter. Peter Nichols may have succeeded in this gambit with A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, but Vradenburg hasn't the skills to pull it off. Kate and Grace are stock figures who don't get along for the reasons Jewish daughters never get along with their Jewish mothers in plays like this one: Mommy dearest can't stop herself from criticizing everything daughter dearest says and does. This hackneyed relationship is put to the test when Grace starts losing her memory and Kate tries to help.

After visiting a series of insensitive medical boobs, Kate finds Sam Gelman (Armand Schultz), who is sympathetic and so well versed in his field that he's willing to put Grace on an experimental drug called Prolox. By the second act, Prolox has worked so many restorative changes that Grace is once again trying to control Kate's life. Grace also has to accept the fact that hubby Jack (Jerry Grayson), a large man whose most notable feature is a comb-over, has found a new squeeze, a middle-aged bimbo named Lorna (Cynthia Darlow). Kate and the divorced Grace go to the Jack-Lorna nuptials, where the happy couple are dressed as Romeo and Cleopatra. After that, Grace once again gets lost in the disease's grip, much as Robert De Niro succumbed in Awakenings when the L-dopa he was taking began to lose its healing power.

Surviving Grace is a play about mother-daughter reconciliation, with a formidable backdrop provided by the fast onset of Alzheimer's disease. Because she's obviously familiar with the milieu, Vradenburg throws in scene after scene in which the ministering Kate tackles troubles in the workplace. The biggest noise there is Madge Wellington (Linda Hart), a dark-haired and bosomy egotist. The sitcom they're working on is called Order Up! and it calls for Madge to be a waitress who turns up each week at a different theme restaurant. This prompts a series of sight gags which don't turn out to be gags at all, because neither Vradenburg nor costume designer Ann Hould-Ward can make them work for love or money.

Among the deficiencies of Vradenburg's script, the most egregious is probably the Prolox ploy; the use of the drug here seems to represent the most human kind of wishful thinking. Wouldn't it be swell if patients could make a recovery stronger than that allowed at the moment by drugs like Aricept? But Vradenburg's Prolox might well have had a slightly different name, prolixity being its most notable side effect. On the drug, Grace initiates an overwritten second-act mother-daughter confrontation that takes place in the far West; the miracle drug's primary dramatic purpose is to make a long and tiresome play longer and more tiresome.

Surviving Grace has its saving graces. Their names are Illeana Douglas and Doris Belack, and they make whatever they do seem as natural as possible. Occasionally, they even help Vradenburg's wisecracks to land. But, ultimately, they can't and don't make the play click. None of the actors can accomplish such a feat, the most put-upon of them being Linda Hart; there's no way that she, or anyone, could be amusing as the dreary Madge.

First-time producer Benton has rounded up some excellent names in her attempt at hoodwinking audiences. Jack Hofsiss directs, throwing in a handful of feeble visual jokes that signal his confusion. David Gallo has designed an adaptable set featuring an upstage row of changing cubicles and lots of slides. Even Robert La Fosse has been roped in to give Jerry Grayson and Cynthia Darlow a song-and-dance routine. None of this hurts...but none of it helps, either.

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