Reviewed by George Basler
At first glance the plot of Trying seems to be the worst kind of theatrical cliché. One character in the two-character play is a cantankerous, demanding old man. The other is a bright, efficient young woman who goes to work for him. Of course, they’re going to start the play clashing with each other. Of course, there going to end up feeling mutual respect and affection.
But don’t let the plot summary discourage you. Trying, now playing at the Cider Mill Playhouse in Endicott, is a funny, warm and poignant play that skillfully explores both the issues of aging and the stresses of young dreams yet to be realized. Canadian playwright Joanna McClelland Glass skillfully intermixes humorous and emotional moments without ever descending into false sentimentality. Like a skillful jazz musician finding new riffs on an old tune, Glass finds new insights in the off-repeated odd couple genre.
And the Cider Mill production is first-rate, with Paul Falzone and Marjorie Donovick giving outstanding performances.
Glass based her play on her own experiences as personal secretary in 1967-68 to Francis Biddle, an American lawyer and judge who was Attorney General of the United States during World War II and later served as the primary judge during the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.
A WASP down to his core (his English ancestors emigrated to New Jersey and Virginia in the 17th century), Biddle broke with his patrician background by becoming a Democrat and supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. By the time of the play, however, Biddle is 81 and, by his own admission, functioning “somewhere between lucidity and senility.” Although in failing health, or perhaps because of it, he is a demanding, persnickety boss whose last two secretaries have resigned.
Into his life comes Sarah Schorr, all of 25 years old, who has been hired by Biddle’s wife as the latest secretary to be fed into the judge’s meat grinder. Sarah’s humble background, coming from a small town in Saskatchewan, couldn’t be more different than Biddle’s silver spoon life. But, during the course of the play, her no-nonsense attitude helps him deal with aging. At the same time, Biddle, in his gruff way, offers support as Sarah deals with an unsatisfactory marriage and unexpected pregnancy. They connect in a personal way almost in spite of themselves.
To be successful, Trying has to find two actors who bring nuances and emotional shadings to the characters while arousing the audience’s empathy. The Cider Mill is fortunate because both Falzone and Donovick do first-rate jobs in carrying out this assignment. (Leaving the theater my wife commented they are “Broadway caliber.”)
Falzone, who has played the role before, has the showier part, dropping insults like bread crumbs at the start of the play. As Trying progresses, his portrayal of Biddle becomes more multi-dimensional when the elderly judge’s regrets and vulnerabilities emerge along with his intimidated persona. Some of the regrets, such as the death of one of his children at a young age, are personal. Others are political, including not fighting harder to stop the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Biddle’s final comment – “Never again will I trust that mystic cliché ‘military necessity’” — hits home as forcefully as it did more than 70 years ago.
Donovick has the difficult job of making the character of Sarah more than just a foil for Biddle. She does this well. Her portrayal catches the underlying strength of the character, who wants to be a successful writer, along with her vulnerabilities and doubts. Sarah’s confrontation with Biddle, when she makes it clear she is no longer going to tolerate the octogenarian’s guff, drew the loudest applause from the opening night audience.
Despite touching on political events, Trying is not really a political play. Vietnam is hardly mentioned, even though the play takes place in the late 1960s (although Biddle’s comment about “military necessity” could be seen as an oblique reference). The Civil Rights movement is mentioned briefly, through the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., but the reference seems shoehorned into the play and is one of its few false moments.
In the end , the play is an affectionate memoir of a bittersweet May-to-December friendship that develops between the mismatched pair. Most impressively, Glass never hits the audience over the head with a big, phony self -revelatory scene. She lets the relationship develop through small, incremental moments that add up over the course of two acts.
Equally impressive, Glass doesn’t let the play drift into easy sentimentality. No one hugs at the end of Trying. Class differences remain. The two characters would never think of having a social night out together. But the short last scene, which cleverly and succinctly encapsulates their relationship, is breathtaking.
Penny Powell’s direction is first-rate. So is the set by Craig Saeger, which is perfect down to the pictures of FDR and Harry Truman on the walls of Biddle’s office. Perhaps because Trying is outside of the Cider Mill’s comfort zone — it’s not a mystery, farce or musical — I thought the production is one of the best I’ve ever seen there.
IF YOU GO: Trying will run through the weekend of April 4-7 at the Cider Mill Playhouse, 2 S. Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. Performances are 8:15 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. There is also a 4 p.m. performance April 6. (NOTE: There are no performances the weekend of March 28-31.)
Tickets are $28 Fridays, $29 Saturdays, $26 other times ($10 for Sundays and matinees for ages 18 and younger when accompanied by an adult; $25 Thursdays, Sundays and matinees for students and those 65 and older). Tickets are available by calling 748-7363, at the box office from noon-5:30 p.m. weekdays and until curtain time on performance days. You also can buy online at http://www.cidermillplayhouse.org.