Reviewed by Will Stackman
There's a difference between crises and plot. Playwright turned screenwriter Stephen Belber is very adept at orchestrating the first but has little interest in the latter. Consequently, the five characters drawn and redrawn in the world premiere production of his latest stage work, "Carol Mulroney" each seems to be his or her own play, connected mostly by their relationship to the title role played by Ana Reeder. While Reeder. who starred in Craig Lucas' Obie-winning "Small Tragedy" has a certain naive charm, she doesn't have the charisma to hold the show together. She doesn't get much help from costumer Kristin Glans who's dressed her in casual nondescript juvenile garb, belying Carol's supposed 32 years. It doesn't help either that Belber has given her most of the reliable exposition and kills her off a quarter of the way through this 90 minute exercise. The rest of her role is therefore in flashback with an ambiguous timeline. It's an interesting performance that might work better on film with a lot of closeups.
The four other cast members, all with solid New York credentials, make the most of their often superficial roles. Larry Pine , as her father Hutton Mulroney, brings the swarmy quality (which made his Roy Cohn striking on Broadway) to this owner of a small cosmetics firm whose wife, Carol's mother, apparently committed suicide. Tim Ransom, departing artistic director of the Naked Angels Theater Co., who plays Lesley, her ineffectual husband, one of her father's sales managers, has his own issues including wanting to grow potatoes and raise bees in the roof garden of their Manhattan apartment. Reuben Jackson is Ken Parker, a black sales manager at the cosmetics firm and Lesley's rival to replace a departing V.P. He is strangely attracted to Carol's fey world-view, even though he is ambivalent about white women. Early in the play, Hutton offers him the promotion and suggests that he marry Carol. Hutton finds Lesley too ineffectual. Johanna Day plays Joan, Carol's harddrinking best friend, a painter given to fantasy , who incidentally is having an affair with Lesley. The revelations of these various details is more or less the whole of the play's action.
Belber has attempted to take the sort of shallow modern characters usually found in soap opera and use them to explore the question of life and death, particularly suicide. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of this cast, none of them have really convincing lives. There's too much repartee and idiosyncrasy, as when Hutton casually lights up a joint. Individual moments are convincing enough, but the whole drama never quite comes together. Ultimately, the question of whether Carol jumped or merely slipped from her roof garden doesn't matter. Director Lisa Peterson, who was at the Mark Taper for the last several years, hasn't found a way to convert the clever words of the script into compelling action. The title character's death is of no particular consequence, as the author may realize, since he has his heroine blow her own ashes into the wind at the end of the piece.
The production is handsome enough in a minimalist way. West Coast designer Rachel Hauck has set the show on a series of levels, the largest becoming Carol's roof, dominated by a large chimney. The cyc behind contains an impressive array of tiny lights indicating either the city or the stars, an effect necessarily coordinated with Alexander V. Nichols efficient lighting. There are however no plants in sight, which makes Lesley's gardening aspirations somewhat irrelevant. A few chairs help define scenes which don't happen on the roof. The rest of the costuming is more appropriate than Carol's undefined clothes. John Gromada's sound design and original music do their job. None of the technical expertise however is any more relevant than the script's vapid world-view.
One of Belber's recurring images, which in fact is repeated as three slightly different scenes near the end of the piece, is Carol as a child, standing in the observation window of a giant wooden elephant on the Atlantic City boardwalk, sometime before her mother's suicide. The window, six stories up, is in the elephant's butt. The image is striking once but wears thin until it like much of the play seems relatively meaningless. whatever significance it is supposed to hold for the title character.
For the opening of this new proscenium theatre last fall, the Huntington presented Melinda Lopez' "Sonia Flew" which had been developed during her fellowship at the Huntington and since gotten regional attention. Belber's "Carol Mulroney" was part of the Breaking Ground Program (2002). These staged readings featuring guests stars from NYC seem to be HTC's preferred effort to find new work to present. Belber's "Stabbing" was heard there in 2003, and Artistic Director Nicholas Martin directed the author's first Broadway effort, "Match" in 2005. However, since this playwright/screen writer has reportedly just signed a very lucrative film deal, this current script can go back in the drawer to await further inspiration and clarification. Or quietus.