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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Community Property

Across the Boards Dept.: Wondering how I spent the Thanksgiving season in years past, I came across a bounty in 1986. Today you can visit a play I (more or less) enjoyed at Capital Rep: the review is followed by a preview piece I wrote the week before. Coming up: Kathleen Battle and Charlie Byrd.


GREASY, MUSTACHIOED PAUL HAS panned Jesse’s first novel, Spiked Heels. He writes for one of those literary magazines and has a following among the intelligentsia, whose numbers include Jesse until the review comes out. Now she’s at Paul’s parents’ home in Queens to confront the critic, but her plans get screwed up by his too-understanding folks, Rose and Danielo, who detect an attraction between the youngsters.

(l-r) Biancamano, Berger, Newhall, and Shepard.
That attraction fuels the four scenes of Dalene Young’s new play Community Property, receiving its world premiere in the second slot of the current Capital Repertory Co. season. It’s an attraction that seems based only upon sex and certainly runs counter to the intellectual preferences  of the two.

If you can get around the big improbability that lurks in he setup, be prepared to have a most enjoyable time at this show, a sentimental mixture of comedy and pathos that features some extremely accomplished performances.

Part of Paul’s review labels the book “superficial, but never boring,” an opinion that holds up well for this play. The laughs come as two contrasting couples satisfy our expectations of rather predictable behavior. Rose and Danielo are an Italian couple who have pursued their New World dream in their little home in Queens. Dad is a waiter who adores the operas of Bellini and Donizetti; Mom would sooner die than let a man into her kitchen. In other words, the stereotyped Italians, as predictable as Neil Simon’s stereotyped Jews.

As stereotypes they are entirely credible. We probably all have met a couple like this at one time or another, if not in person then on TV. Paul and Jesse, on the other hand, are a cliché, one of Hollywood’s favorites: they’re hand-me-downs of a macho-sentimental tradition in which sexual attraction is read as sexual tension and played as sexual hostility masquerading in the guise of desire-provoking power. In other words, Paul lacks the ability to express his attraction for Jesse, plays it instead in John Wayne-style: “I’ll just give her a big kiss and, hell, all her defenses will drop.”

It’s the stuff of bodice-rippers: those fluttering hands behind his powerful back soon grasp that back in a hug.

Jesse’s antecedent is the Carole Lombard wisecracker tradition. She can deflect Paul’s guff with a barb and get a quick laugh while doing so.

Again, these are characters that don’t bring much originality to the stage and don’t ask the audience to react any differently than TV requests of them. And that’s a disappointment. The characters move through difficulties ripe with promise, especially as we ride the roller-coaster of the marriage of Jesse and Paul. And we see and hear a lot about why they don’t get along. But something other than sex must have cast the bonds that keep them together – they’re both too smart to act otherwise and, in Paul’s case, there’s a heavy Catholic ethic at work.

That ethic is the glue behind his parents’ marriage. It isn’t really defined in the course of the story, but we can assume it lurks behind Rose and Danielo: it’s part of the stereotype.

Anna Berger has the voice and gestures of an Italian housewife down to a T, but her lines are just a little too self-consciously unself-consciously witty to be entirely credible. With fewer such laugh lines, Frank Biancamano’s Danielo is an acting job of perfection.

John Shepherd is their son, aging very visibly in the course of 20 years. He fits the part nicely, bringing a provocative pathos to the dilemma of being the only child who isn’t quite making it and must compete with his wife for recognition.

And Anne Newhall plays Jesse with a fine sense of timing and a personality that manages to be at once tough and vulnerable.

Capital Rep co-producing director Peter H. Clough directs this production with comedy at the forefront, and paces it quite skillfully, setting up the conflicts without telegraphing what’s to come.

The little living room-dining area is one of the best sets yet on the Capital Repertory stage, the work of Leslie Taylor.

Community Property is a very funny show, and it’s to Young’s credit that she fashioned a comedy that raises many intriguing questions about the ethics of marriage. But she raised more questions than this set of characters is prepared to answer.

Metroland Magazine, 27 November 1986


DALENE YOUNG ISN’T ONE TO gloat. She’s as nice as you can imagine when you speak to her on the phone. Told that it was 28 degrees in the Capital Region, she responds with Los Angeles enthusiasm. “I heard about that! Gosh, to have a little bit of winter over here. You get tired of wearing cotton skirts and sandals.” I swear she was serious.

Young is keeping in touch with Albany right now because Capital Repertory is preparing the premiere of her play Community Property. She won’t be able to visit for the opening this Saturday: she plans to come out during the final week. (When it’ll be that much colder.)

The show, chosen from three she submitted, is a romantic comedy to complement the drama of the just-finished Dusky Sally and the soon-to-arrive A View from the Bridge.

It’s the story of the marriage of an author and a critic, unfolding for us over a span of 20 years. As it opens. Paul, who writes very literary reviews for an avant-garde magazine, has viciously panned Jesse’s first novel. It’s a rocky relationship, with lines drawn on artistic grounds, and it is contrasted the with much more traditional marriage of Paul’s parents.

The happy ending sets Community Property apart from most of Young’s other scripts. “For years, I’ve been writing plays that had no happy endings.” she says. “In fact, they had horrendous endings. Absolutely horrendous, over and over.

“So I looked at my own life and other peoples’ lives and decided to write about marriage. I sat down to write a romance about older people and people of this generation, about the different ways people have of showing love, of how they act when romance is in the air.”

Young used to live in Queens, where she has placed Paul’s parents, and drew from her observations of Italian-American customs to give life to Rose and Danielo Sattorelli. The romance of Paul and Jesse, however, finds no precedent in Young’s own marriage to director Robert Martin Carroll, who encouraged her to expand from theater into films and television, precipitating a move from New York to California.

Young’s television credits include Marilyn, the Untold Story and Frances Farmer: movies include Little Darlings and Cross Creek. But there are drawbacks to the commercial success offered by Hollywood, especially in television: “There is no freedom of language. You have six or seven bosses, you’re writing for a committee who don’t always know or agree on what they want and your scenes have to climax on the minute because the commercials are more important than the characters.”

So Young continues to write and sell—and sometimes act in—her stage plays. “In the theater, I can write from the heart,” she says. “I don’t see the theater as commercial, since most of it is now happening outside of New York City, or at least not on Broadway.”

Meanwhile, out on that other coast, she’s juggling more than a dozen writing projects, including several as writer-producer for Embassy TV. “It’s pitch season,” she explains. “The networks only buy at certain seasons, and then they run out of money and you have to wait until they open up again.”

The writing process begins with an outline. “I first come up with an idea and I write a story—just plot and characters, no dialogue. I then take the story to one of the networks and I sell it. If they like it, a deal is worked out and I actually write the screenplay.”

Community Property will be directed by Capital Rep Co-Producing Director Peter H. Clough. Anne Newhall returns after her success here two seasons ago in And a Nightingale Sang... to play the part of Jesse. John Shepard, whose credits include the Broadway revival of A View from the Bridge, plays Paul. Anna Berger. who has worked in films and television as well as on stage all over the country, is Rose, and husband Danielo is played by Frank Biancamano, the father in the Broadway production of Gemini.

Musing over the elements of her new play, Young explains that she loves to explore the relationships between men and women. “I think it’s great. It offers so much possibility. And I haven’t had the opportunity before this play to do it with so much humor.

“I do draw from my own experience a bit. I look at situations I’m in and then imagine. ‘What if ... And I look at the people around me.” But pressed to describe her own family conflicts and heartaches, she confesses. “I really have the healthiest family background.”

Community Property opens with an 8 PM performance Saturday, Nov. 22. and continues with 8 PM shows Tuesdays through Fridays. 4:30 and 9 PM Saturdays, and 2:30 PM Sundays. through Dec. 21.

Metroland Magazine, 20 November 1986

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