Now Circa Then
Carly Mensch's incredibly engaging new play at Ars Nova looks at both the past and present.
Gideon and Margie (Stephen Plunkett and Maureen Sebastian) are tour guides paid to portray Julian and Josephine, an immigrant couple on New York's Lower East Side circa 1890. The audience is given the role of the tour group, but instead of studying the museum, they get an intimate look at the absorbing characters on stage.
As the young couple get to know one another through the easy banter that embodies their occupation, they begin a paralleled journey of self-discovery that develops out of their present-day relationship with one another.
Now Circa Then is incredibly engaging from the moment it opens. While the concept of the story shows potential for confusion, as the actors must switch back and forth in two story lines, Mensch's brilliant script and the actors' impeccable ease for embracing the nuances of their characters allows the concept to work beautifully.
The play also does justice to the social issues surrounding the iconic American dream, while questioning Americans' tendencies to contradict themselves with their actions. Feminism and historic values are woven through the story in the most thought-provoking of ways with only one hiccup in tow: an unnecessary, secondary point about Gideon's obsession with his mother.
Between the Victrola, the hand-held wooden agitator (laundry churner), and a slew of other period set and costume pieces (provided by Lauren Helpern and Jenny Mannis), the play is not only authentic, but intriguing through its last second.