The Abingdon Theatre has a curious personality, at least to me. Where various institutional theatre companies make their marks by dancing on the edge of social mores (The New Group), forgotten revivals (the Mint), experimentation in form (New York Theatre Workshop), or a more general nurturing of various new voices with the occasional British import (Manhattan Theatre Club, Atlantic, MCC, Vineyard, etc.) … the Abingdon seems to favor what I can only (and I hasten to add, affectionately) call “throwback theatre.” They embrace, in revivals and new works, the kind of edgeless fare that is a staple of stock, amateur and community theatre groups; cozy comedies among them, middlebrow sitcom stuff; the ones set in the present being contemporary of reference yet at least a generation older in sensibility.
Add to that roster one of their better offerings, the latest by actress-playwright Catherine Butterfield, It Has to Be You. The premise is not entirely unfamiliar: Mindy (Ms. Butterfield) and Frank (Adam Ferrara), a middle-aged brother and sister, are driving from NYC to Massachusetts following concerning reports about outrageous behavior exhibited by their 76 year old mother, Dorothy. When they arrive, they discover that she (Peggy J. Scott) has a new and rather younger man in her life, Burt (Peter Davenport). Their reflexive distrust of Burt motivates a call to their slightly younger, more successful Hollywood brother, Jed (Jeffrey C. Hawkins), under the theory that as Mama’s baby and a bit more of a “fixer,” he’ll be able to run slyer interference. More than that I dast not say (even that may be a bit much, lest describing all the players suggest spoilers), but with luck you’ll have forgotten it before you attend.
And attend you might well do. Comfy comedy It Has to Be You may be, but it’s handled with an expertise that’s almost astonishing, for, you see, it isn’t being presented on Abingdon’s mainstage, but rather its smaller, black box theatre, which has audience on two sides of a playing space that’s kind of shoved into a corner; a theatre that holds about 50 people. Yet an unusually accomplished and high-octane cast for such a venue, under direction by Stuart Ross, delivering an expertly wrought script, elicit the kind and consistency of powerhouse laughs that used to attend the comedies of Neil Simon, when he was at the top of his game. It’s challenging enough to find the balance of timing and verisimilitude in a proscenium theatre; to nail it like that in an oversized walk-in closet is an accomplishment very akin to magic.
I hasten to reiterate, It Has to Be You is not daring or mandatory. As off-Broadway (actually in this case, off-off Broadway) fare goes, it’s on the lighter side of the spectrum; it’s ultimately a comedy of reassurance.
But then again, you don’t look toward comfort food for the adventure. And in this case comfort food just happens to be the gourmet spécialité de la maison.
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