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The Last Word...

Daniel J. Travanti and Adam Green butt heads in Oren Safdie's play about the artistic generation gap. logo
Adam Green and Daniel J. Travanti
in The Last Word...
(© Carol Rosegg)
An elderly, tradition-bound Jewish man whose youth was torn asunder by the Holocaust is thrown into an artistic relationship with a headstrong young member of the tribe. Not surprisingly, the two find themselves in conflict due to their highly disparate personalities, tastes, and world-views. This would serve well as a précis of Jon Marans' Old Wicked Songs, but it also applies to Oren Safdie's two-hander The Last Word..., now on view at the Theatre at St. Clement's.

Safdie's play is set in the 1990s in a small, rundown office above a Greenwich Village theater. The office is that of Henry Grunwald (Daniel J. Travanti), an elderly Viennese Jew who fled the Nazis, went on to become a successful advertising executive, and now wants to fulfill his dream of becoming a playwright; to this end, he seeks the help of a research assistant-slash-dramaturge. The play consists of Henry's unconventional interview with Len Artz (Adam Green), a dramatic writing student at NYU, who hopes to fill the position.

A large percentage of The Last Word... is devoted to generation-gap humor. Henry's plays -- which bear such titles as Happy Birthday, Please Make it Peonies, and Requiem for André -- are contained on a computer so ancient that we can hear its drives spinning as it boots up, and the nearly blind old fellow talks about blacks, gays, Hispanics, and even Canadians in a way that makes Len very uncomfortable. But the two men are similar in that they're both highly opinionated. For example, Len speaks condescendingly of Arthur Miller and isn't shy about admitting that he's not a huge fan of Shakespeare. (He describes the Bard's comedies as "glorified Three's Companys," apparently forgetting which came first). Henry, for his part, remarks that "The people who decide what goes to Broadway know nothing about the theater."

Much of the dialogue crackles, and Safdie somehow makes a not unfamiliar set-up seem quite fresh, largely because Henry and Len have their fair share of complexities to shade their often stereotypical behavior. In addition, there are amusing inside references to Wendy Wasserstein, Terrence McNally, the Dodgers, and other contemporary theatrical figures. But the play is oddly constructed, and some of the characters' actions are contrived. At one point, the frustrated Len storms out of the office and then storms right back in again, for no convincing reason. Very late in the proceedings, Henry delivers a long monologue that would have been more effectively placed much earlier in the script. And to say that the play ends abruptly would be an understatement.

Happily, two fine actors are on hand. Travanti -- who has starred in regional productions of Old Wicked Songs -- is terrific as the mercurial Henry, with a pitch-perfect accent and marvelously expressive body language. This is the sort of bravura role in which an actor can easily give too much, but Travanti plays it to the hilt without overplaying. Green, who bears a strong physical resemblance to Zach Braff of Scrubs fame, contributes an intelligent and charismatic performance as Len, though director Alex Lippard might have helped him to find more emotional colors in the role.

On the plus side, Lippard keeps things moving at just the right clip for the play to make its points without wearing out its welcome. (The intermissionless show runs about 80 minutes). Set designer Michael V. Moore has provided an appropriately sparse and dingy office for the Henry-Len discourse. Equally appropriate are Lucas Benjaminh Krech's lighting and Kirche Leigh Zeile's costumes. Hail also to sound designer Gabe Wood for those wonderfully realistic computer noises.

The ironic thing about The Last Word... is that, while the subject matter is guaranteed to appeal to playwrights, such folk are most likely to find the work wanting on the basis of sheer dramaturgy. But anyone who loves good acting should catch this production.

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