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The Singing Forest

Despite a top-notch cast led by Olympia Dukakis, Craig Lucas' uneasy melding of drama and farce is only intermittently effective. logo
Jonathan Groff, Susan Pourfar, and Olympia Dukakis
in The Singing Forest
(© Carol Rosegg)
Craig Lucas' The Singing Forest, now making its New York premiere at the Public Theater, is nothing if not ambitious. Spanning over 60 years (in over two hours and 45 minutes including two intermissions), the play has an epic scope that covers such weighty topics as the Holocaust, psychoanalysis, and family dysfunction. However, in its uneasy melding of drama and farce, the work is only intermittently effective, particularly in director Mark Wing-Davey's muddled production. Ultimately, the play would be more powerful with an abbreviated running time and a clearer focus.

At the center of the story is Loë Rieman (the always terrific Olympia Dukakis), who we first meet at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in New York City in 2000. She takes issue with the meeting's topic, "Making Amends," believing that some wrongs cannot be made right. "Can Hitler make amends?" she asks, before launching into a diatribe about how perhaps it is better to feel shame than to ask for "the serenity to accept the things I cannot change." For Loë, this includes the guilt she still feels in regards to what happened to her brother Walter (Jonathan Groff) in the distant past, as well as her currently estranged relationship with her grown children Oliver (Mark Blum) and Bertha (Deborah Offner).

However, Lucas is not interested in telling a straightforward story. Instead, he weaves together the lives of numerous individuals in both the 1930s and 2000, slowly revealing how they are all interconnected. "There are no coincidences," is a common refrain in the play, which conveniently also helps to weave the various characters into a plot in which everyone seems to be at most two degrees away from one another.

With the exception of Dukakis, the top-notch cast all play two roles apiece. Groff is wonderful as Gray, an actor who goes therapist-shopping for a wealthy client who doesn't want his identity known (played by a nicely understated Louis Cancelmi, who is also quietly effective as Walter's mild-mannered boyfriend, Simon in the 1930s scenes). Rob Campbell is perhaps a bit too strident as Shar, one of the analysts that Gray visits, while Blum is pitch-perfect as the other one. Randy Harrison makes a strong impression as Laszlo, a young gay man who has been romantically involved with both Shar and Oliver. Pourfar impresses both as a young Loë and as Beth Adler, Gray's girlfriend and Laszlo's co-worker. Offner is amusing as the shrill and somewhat eccentric Bertha. Pierre Epstein isn't all that convincing as Sigmund Freud, but does better as Bill, who approaches Loë after the AA meeting.

Unfortunately, Wing-Davey has not found the proper tonal balance to go easily from a scene in which a multitude of characters farcically hide out in bathrooms, closets, and trunks to one in which the gut-wrenching facts about Loë's past are revealed. It's also a little difficult to tease out what the playwright is attempting to say about the practice of psychoanalysis. With five practitioners of the discipline in the play -- including both Sigmund and Anna Freud -- it's not incidental, and yet, all of the 21st century analysts in the piece behave in such a horribly unprofessional manner that it's difficult to take any of them seriously. And while many of the characters are subject to analysis at some point or another, the results are presented as either insightful keys to a person's state of mind or mere comic fodder -- and in one instance towards the end of the play, Shar's summing up of what has just been revealed is meant to be both.

John McDermott's cluttered and rather unattractive set does little to help smooth transitions and only barely suggests changes in location (and sometimes it doesn't even do that). This job falls more to Japhy Weideman's often moody lighting, which is effectively coupled with John Gromada's original music and sound design to create the proper atmosphere in key scenes.

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