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Lisa Emery, Zach Grenier, and Lee Aaron Rosen give compelling performances in Moira Buffini's flawed World War II drama.

Lisa Emery, Samantha Soule, and Lee Aaron Rosen
in Gabriel
(© Ari Mintz)
The title character of Moira Buffini's Gabriel, now playing at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater, could be an Englishman or a Nazi, an angel or a mere mortal. All he remembers is falling from the sky prior to landing in the German-occupied Channel Islands in 1943. The situation allows the playwright to have other characters project their own hopes and desires upon this tabula rasa, but while director David Esbjornson's production contains several compelling performances, it can't quite cover up some of the work's flaws.

The entirety of the play takes place in the home of Jeanne Becquet (Lisa Emery), who lives with her young daughter Estelle (Libby Woodbridge), her daughter-in-law Lily (Samantha Soule), and her housekeeper, Margaret (Patricia Conolly). Lily discovers the wounded amnesiac (Lee Aaron Rosen) on the beach, whom Estelle christens Gabriel. That same night, Jeanne brings back to her home Major Von Pfunz (Zach Grenier), a Nazi commander new to the area.

Early in the play, Jeanne reveals a number of damning secrets to Von Pfunz in the mistaken belief that he does not speak English. However, this plot device seems rather strained -- mostly there to unload exposition and to provide Von Pfunz with more power over the family -- since Jeanne otherwise comes across as both an intelligent and practical woman. Nevertheless, Emery and Grenier are terrific in their roles, and the vibrant dynamic between them is a constantly shifting play of power and desire.

As for Gabriel, the Becquets think he's a British pilot from a recently downed plane, while Von Pfunz believes him to be a missing SS officer from a crashed sea vessel. Gabriel speaks both English and German fluently, but predictably, it is by his actions that he is ultimately defined. Rosen wears the mantle of innocence like a shroud, his eyes registering hurt and confusion as Gabriel tries to adjust to his situation and sift through the contradictory bits of information that he newly learns.

Conolly and Soule both do fine work in their respective parts, but Woodbridge tends to overplay her intentions as Estelle. It doesn't help that the adult actress is attempting to play a child, and not succeeding in a convincing fashion.

Riccardo Hernandez has crafted a very striking set, which is positioned on a slant. However, since the main playing space doubles as both the ground floor and the attic, it does create some confusion. Lighting designer Scott Zielinski could do more to help make it clear which area individual segments of the play are occurring (although sometimes it is both simultaneously).

Buffini incorporates numerous lyrical passages in her drama. In moderation, this could be effective, but as it is, the poetic language seems self-consciously imposed upon the play. And while the performers can make some of it sound natural, it too often calls attention to itself in an unnecessarily distracting manner.


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