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In Brief:
"A Double-Bill" at the Signature Theatre Company

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The Signature Theatre Company continues its exploration of the byways of Arthur Miller with A Double-Bill. The first item, I Can’t Remember Anything (1987), concerns the cutesily named Leo and Leonora, two elderly people conjoined only by their general isolation and shared love for the late Frederick, whom Leonora was married to and Leo idolized. Leonora keeps dropping in on Leo and boring him; he takes care of her donations to charity and maintains some contact with the outside world through her mundane chitchat. But his patience is crumbling.

This is a real enough situation, involving believable characters, that shows off Miller at his soundest: working without grandiose aspirations in the medium of common clay. The mixture of interdependence and irritation is well caught: Leo, the unregenerate leftist, is, though burned out, still an intellectual; Leonora, her charms faded, is now only a habit and a nuisance. She cannot remember, and he doesn’t want to, and yet....

It is small-scale theater, but not to be despised, to which a letter and recording sent by Leonora’s musician son from his Sri Lankan refuge add a bit of idiosyncratic color. Joseph Chaikin has managed to direct it adequately but cast it against the text’s age indications: Leo, supposed to be 53, is played by Joseph Wiseman, 79; Leonora, meant to be 65, by Rebecca Schull, who seems younger. No matter: Wiseman, a grand, old-style actor, is fun to watch. His tone is tauntingly acidic, his expression world-weary but capable of mischievous reigniting; his hands keep taking off on a little dance of impatience and deprecation. Unfortunately, Miss Schull lacks the appeal of Geraldine Fitzgerald, who created the role, and cannot match Wiseman in savor and savvy.

The other one-acter, The Last Yankee (1993), is more portentous and pretentious. Two men meet in the waiting room of a state mental hospital. The older, John Frick (60), is a smugly prosperous self-made tycoon; the younger (48) is a lowly carpenter, albeit one who has done fine, even artistic, work around town. He is Leroy Hamilton, lineal descendant of Alexander Hamilton, and not in the least stuck-up about it; he is the decent, unassuming last Yankee of the title. Both men’s wives are patients. Patricia Hamilton, of moodily Swedish descent, has been in and out of the hospital; pathetic Karen Frick is in for the first time. The scene switches from the men waiting to see their wives to the wives gathering resolve to face their husbands; in a final scene, all take part.

The point, I guess, is that in this Millerian New England there are crass but successful upstarts like Frick, who barely tolerates his neglected wife’s taking up tap-dancing, as well as humble scions of the true aristocrats, such as Hamilton. He is resented by his wife, who feels déclassé because of her husband’s unambitious upward immobility, which includes his taking unchic banjo lessons. The women must band together to achieve the self-assertiveness that might help their marriages. Alas, it is all Sociology 1 crossed with Psychology 1, sprinkled with the facile feminism that reinforces male liberal complacency.

Regrettably, neither Peter Maloney nor Kevin Conroy captures the New England tang, or acts persuasively otherwise. Shami Chaikin, an actress who made it solely on her brother’s coattails, plays Karen Frick as a Jewish comedienne. Kate Myre, at least, gets Patricia nearly right. There is also the silent part of a blank, bedridden woman meant to convey the depth of depression, whom Chaikin allows to rise from her bed in the end and walk away -- the wrongheaded opposite of what the stage directions call for. Now, if he could only have brought together the banjo-playing Leroy and tap-dancing Karen for an encore, that would have been something.


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