“On a First Name Basis” / Taconic Stage Company
MAYBE IT IS A CANADIAN THING: a predictable leaning to the middle class in playwriting as well as in dealing with the broader world.
Oh yes, this observer frequently thanks goddess for the middle classes, who seem to be the only sane people on the planet (the poor being too stressed for sanity and the rich too entranced with their own superiority to grasp what’s going on).
Or maybe that Canada cliché about middleness has no basis in reality. Still, always, Taconic Stage director Carl Ritchie reminds us that Norm Foster is the most produced playwright in Canada, and Norm Foster plays are a tribute to the slightly bland, TV influenced, intelligent, but too tradition-bound voice of the middle. And maybe Foster truly understands his audience.
Though I sometimes take issue with that audience, I am attracted to the work of actress Susan Fullerton who, in “On a First Name Basis,” plays a housekeeper who has worked 28 years for a successful writer. Her co-star, Jeffrey Judd, is much better looking than the script suggests and is fine, if not thrilling, in the non-thrilling role of the writer with his three wives and thirteen novels.
Fullerton is indestructibly lady-like. It is a sit-tall-with-knees-together kind of ladylikeness with powerful individuality blazing underneath. The type is so out of fashion that it has become refreshing and new again; and whenever she allows a peek at the feistiness underneath, the impact is much greater because of the contrast. Last year, in Ritchie’s production of Foster’s “Old Love,” we saw her “allow” quite a bit. This year she stays truer to type, but remains as interesting as ever.
It is all the more admirable that, in “First Name Basis”, she does it within the confines of Foster’s tired device—the rigidly constrained female whose tongue and character are unleashed by alcohol. Unfortunately, Fullerton must utter some lines that are the underside of middle-classness: “That’s not who I am,” and “Writing is who you are.” (Were those phrases, those concepts ever meaningful—or always merely vacuous and trendy?) How about “Write about what you know”?
Of course, this two-person play is small enough to almost fit in the mini space at the front of the lovely Saint John in the Wilderness Church in Copake Falls, but this time Ritchie’s direction seems stifled by the space. The actors are planted for long stretches in two chairs like Becket characters in their trashcans.
A long monologue, staged with Fullerton staring flat-front instead of talking with the other person in the scene, is rather discomfiting. Perhaps it is meant to underline her reluctance to connect with her employer and to contrast with her chin-in-hands intimacy of a later scene, but it goes on too long. After a while, the flat-front thing simply contradicts life.
Lovely as St. John is, I can’t help longing for a space with soft seats and breathing room on stage for actors and director. Taconic Stage deserves it, as do other small professional theater companies around here. Could it eventually be PS 21 in Chatham? –in repertoire?–mixed with their excellent dance companies’ lineup?—all year long? Something like that might be a tourist lure and a boon for local restaurants and B & Bs. (The reviewer is dreaming again.)
Meanwhile, go have some smiles and chuckles in Copake Falls. See Susan Fullerton do very good work in a predictable, lightweight, but pleasant enough vehicle for a lazy summer afternoon.
The play runs Friday and Saturday August 21 and 22 at 7 p.m., and Sunday, August 23 at 3 p.m. Buy tickets at 518 325-1234 or 800 838-3006 or online at taconicstage.com. Note the generous admission guidelines for seniors, students and handicapped.