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Bland on Bland

At first glance there is much to celebrate in Out of Season, Elinor Jones's new comedy now receiving its world premiere at the Caldwell Theatre. The play itself gives voice to five mature female characters, a welcome counterpoint to the general scarcity of roles for women, even in this so-called liberated age. The project's history is another cause for cheer -- it came up through the Caldwell's play development program. Add to this a solidly professional staging by artistic director Michael Hall and a talented cast of actresses -- and many theatergoers will be cheering heartily.

That said, I am not among them. And those seeking something more substantive and complex would be advised to steer clear of the Caldwell until this play closes.

Jones's tale is set in May at a quiet seaside inn on Long Island, where matronly Bess Gallagher tends to her off-season guests. Sardonic, private Florence Wyler, a retired English teacher, dabbles at painting. Cheery spinster Cora Browne is happy to get away from her sister and her city troubles while a workaholic stage choreographer, Sally Ann Sabatello, can't seem to relax as she eyes the onset of a crushing production schedule.

Into this group barges one Ginnie Stevens, a television soap star who plans to crash the funeral of her recently deceased married lover, the governor of New York, despite opposition from the governor's daughter. Having arrived at the inn drunk the night before, Ginnie is nursing a monster hangover at the play's start. Soon, she meets the other guests and invites them to accompany her to the funeral to give moral support. She gets no takers, but her wisecracking, histrionic personality affects all the others. Florence is aghast that her privacy may be invaded by an inquiring news reporter who's on Ginnie's trail. Cora's mousy demeanor is transformed when Ginnie gives her a fashion makeover. Sally Ann's work insecurities and Bess's marital fears also come under Ginnie's scrutiny.

This lightweight plot is buoyed by an appealing cast. While all fare well, some fare better, with better-written roles. Angie Radosh is quite charming as the geeky Cora, quite a turnaround from Radosh's sleek femme fatale in Black Sheep at Florida Stage. Sloane Shelton is another standout as Florence, whose brusque demeanor hides some untold secrets. Lisa Bansavage carries off Ginnie the soap star with flair, but the character is written without much depth or individuality: Much of her dialogue is generic. Same for Bess and Sally Ann, though Elizabeth Dimon and Nancy Hess do what they can.

As usual, Michael Hall delivers a thoroughly professional job of orchestrating his acting ensembles, and he's ably backed by the Caldwell's resident design team: Tim Bennett, whose expansive, naturalistic, bed-and-breakfast set looks quite comfortable, and Thomas Salzman, whose lighting accents this locale very well indeed. The overall effect of this project is cozy, as thoughtful and delicate as the inn itself.

That's where the problems come in.

I can give Jones, Hall, and company a lot of credit for stagecraft and charm. But I can't give praise for stopping there. Despite its many assets, Out of Season is a dishonest play, one that appears to offer some truth but delivers instead contrivances.

The play sets up a series of female stereotypes, not real characters, each with a different modern problem: a wife fears adultery, the other woman fears loneliness, a workaholic fears failure, a mouse lacks self-esteem. These issues are caricatured but not explored, and none of these characters is given much dimension or color. The dialogue and the ideas discussed seem direct appropriations from an assortment of articles from women's magazines. In fact, Ginnie often sounds like an advice columnist.

More to the point, these characters aren't set against each other in any meaningful way. Although Ginnie's presence is meant to "transform" the others, there really isn't anything going on here except some talk and the final, predictable bonding. In this, the play makes the tired argument that talking through one's troubles will make them better, and if we only could help each other overcome our personal heartaches, the world would be a better place. This is not only a simplistic premise; it is patently false. The human condition has not budged one inch since before the Greek dramatists had a go at depicting it. Jones is making prescriptions for life before she demonstrates much understanding of it.

She and Hall also could have spent more effort on the play's dramaturgy. Despite all the on-stage palaver, the real conflicts, the real drama in the story have to do with two characters who never appear on-stage: the governor's bitter, heartbroken daughter, who is Ginnie's nemesis, and the female reporter. The appearance of either would send this story rocketing into something approaching real drama. Such missed opportunities might have turned this marshmallow of a play into something chewier and more satisfying.

All of this is not to deny the real potential of Out of Season. This is a real play and has a real future -- in other regional theaters and possibly in New York City. Perhaps it is this potential that propelled it onto the Caldwell boards this season. But it has been brought along before its time. It needs more thought and more development.

As it is, Out of Season remains merely a confection, and a soft-centered one at that. It is yet another punchless production from the Caldwell, an eminent theater company that is in danger of drifting into self-satisfied irrelevancy. Sure, the Caldwell's winter audience is heavily tipped toward older retirees and socialites who may not cotton to rough-and-tumble modern drama, but puhleeese! Give them and the rest of us something with style and dash if not muscle. It is surely a sign of trouble at Caldwell when A.R. Gurney's sedate Cocktail Hour packs the biggest dramatic wallop of the season. Bring on better plays, Mr. Hall, say I. You owe it to your audiences, the community, your artists, and yourself. And I will be the first to cheer you when you do.

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Ronald Mangravite

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