Gloomy and Profound

Quiet desperation pulses in the magnificent revival of “Come Back, Little Sheba,” now at Manhattan Theatre Club. The play is often considered a mid-20th-century chestnut – remembered mostly for Shirley Booth's portrayal of Lola. Though potentially stilted and slow to a contemporary audience, “Little Sheba” is nonetheless a heartbreaking and powerful work of theater that elevates it beyond a simple period piece. Playwright William Inge didn't shy away from the difficulty of life. He gave us a naturalistic portrait of people doing the best they can.

Lola, 45, married Doc nearly 25 years earlier, when she became pregnant. Time and a hard existence have stripped Lola of her beauty, and Doc has descended into resentment and alcoholism, despite his wife's loyalty. They have taken in a boarder, Marie, and while Doc flirts with her, something the canny Marie brushes off, Lola sees in her the spirit and fire of youth and possibility, things she herself has lost.

S. Epatha Merkerson is a revelation in “Little Sheba”.

This play is not plot-heavy. Marie is dating and even sleeping with a man named Turk, but she's engaged to Bruce from back home – an up-and-coming young man whom her parents approve of. Lola and Doc, beset by bickering, also become overly involved in Marie's life. Doc resents Marie's easy sexuality and (by 1950 standards) flexible morality – and the fact that she gets away with it. This resentment fuels a major drinking binge, which leaves Lola frightened and threatened. Marie ultimately leaves to marry Bruce, and, alone again, Lola and Doc are left to pick up the pieces.

Despite the simplicity of “Little Sheba,” as a portrait of the characters' internal lives, it is compelling, at times nearly overwhelming. As Lola, S. Epatha Merkerson gives a luminous performance that is both a textbook portrait of co-dependency and a harrowing exploration of a woman just barely holding her life together.

The subtle, poetic performance conveys both fragility and strength. Lola is on a roller coaster, and the best she can do is hold on. There are some high moments, and she seizes them for dear life. She has to – they must sustain her through the scenes when a drunken Doc threatens and berates her. Merkerson catches every nuance of the role, and our heart aches as she longs for a letter or endeavors to make a nice evening for Bruce and Marie, as if that could patch over the gaping holes in her own life.

COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA

Biltmore Theatre

261 West 47th St.

Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., Sun. at 2 p.m.

$46.50-$91.50; 212-239-6200

STRAIGHT UP WITH A TWIST

The Players Theatre

115 MacDougal Street

Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.;

Sat., Sun. at 3 p.m.;

Sun. at 7 p.m.

$45; 212-239-6200

Kevin Anderson as Doc has all the bombast and despair of an alcoholic in the later stages of the disease. At the beginning he too is holding on for dear life to his recent sobriety, but as he loses control, we see how tenuous everything in his life is. Even at the end of the play, when Lola rushes to take care of him and the cycle begins again, it's hard to see how much will change.

Lola's dog Sheba running away is a powerful metaphor for the disappearance of happiness; the woman's repeated, futile calls for the dog represent a poignant statement that even the fleeting happiness she once knew is behind her.

Zoe Kazan gives a wonderful performance as Marie, a girl with a double standard looking out only for herself. She is blithely unaware of the impact her devil-may-care fling has on Doc. Still, unlike Doc and Lola, Marie knows how to care for herself and Kazan uses that knowledge to make her character vibrant and appealing.

The rest of the company does a fine job, particularly Chad Hoeppner as the straight-laced Bruce, and Brian J. Smith as Turk. Brenda Wehle as the German neighbor, Mrs. Coffman, and Matthew J. Williamson as the milkman also add texture.

Director Michael Pressman succeeds in capturing the period and orchestrating the quiet subtleties of the play and the characters. James Noone's set is outstanding, and Jennifer Von Maryhauser's costumes beautifully capture the period and the characters.

This is a gentle and emotionally sumptuous production, and Merkerson's performance should not be missed.

“Straight Up With a Twist” is not a play so much as an extended comedy routine. It is the confessional story of Paul Strolli, a straight actor with a highly developed feminine side. Strolli may like women, but he's got gay sensibilities.

Politically, the show is often on shaky ground in terms of gender stereotyping, but it's best not to worry too much about that and instead focus on Strolli's wonderful cast of characters, his strong writing and timing, and the fun he creates with this piece. It's diverting and engaging, and sometimes that's all you need.

 

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