Miss Witherspoon

Death becomes her—over and over and over again in New City Stage Company's last production in 2010.

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 29, 2010

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Born again: But she prefers suicide.

New City Stage Company closes 2010 with a lackluster staging of nationally renowned Bucks County playwright Christopher Durang’s tepid comedy-of-suicides Miss Witherspoon.

A 90-minute one-act, the play introduces us to the unhappy Veronica (Julie Czarnecki). For a lead character who’s onstage throughout, we don’t know much about her (except that she claims to have been married to My Fair Lady actor Rex Harrison). She describes herself as “antidepressant resistant,” and her unhappiness is her defining characteristic. For Veronica, living in a world of terrorism, nuclear proliferation and global warming is like watching a TV “with horrible things on it.” Veronica’s modern Chicken Little prophecies are confirmed as large chunks of Skylab plunge to earth, and after a piece falls directly at her feet, Veronica calls it quits and kills herself.

Before we have time to mourn her abrupt passing (if we were so inclined, which we’re honestly kind of not), Veronica appears in the Bardo, a sort of waystation where the recently deceased wait to be reincarnated. Maryama (Indika Senanayake), the sari-clad celestial administrator in charge of the soul-recycling system, is the one who nicknames Veronica “Miss Witherspoon,” saying she’s as dreary as one of Agatha Christie’s tweedy, busybody Englishwomen. Veronica, for her part, doesn’t want to be reborn. She just wants to tune out, and yearns for access to the tranquil, unconscious part of heaven reserved for people who don’t believe in an afterlife. But eventually Veronica is unwillingly reincarnated—several times, in fact, as Veronica stubbornly refuses to stay on Earth for long, preferring suicide to the horrors of existence in each subsequent life. The only time she finds happiness is as a tail-wagging, ball-fetching dog who just wants to play and sleep.

There’s other metaphysical characters hanging around the Bardo during Veronica’s stopovers besides Maryama— Lord of the Rings wizard Gandalf (Russ Widdall, who is commendable in multiple roles and does an especially decent impression of Ian McKellen), for example, and Jesus, who appears as a black woman (the excellent Wendy Staton). Despite the one-note gag of the Son of God in a flamboyant Sunday hat, the scene is by far the play’s most affecting. Evoking a Southern Baptist minister brimming with the Holy Spirit, Jesus tells Veronica that he’s fed up with his message of peace and kindness falling on deaf ears. He urges her to return to Earth and spread the lessons of the Beatitudes. Staton, one of the area’s best and most underappreciated performers, plays the scene full-throttle as it dawns on Veronica that she might have some power to change things.

But the role of Veronica calls for a bravura performance, and while Czarnecki is talented, she isn’t a tour-de-force kind of actress. This isn’t a knock against the veteran performer—it’s just that a cerebral actor is ill-suited to the theatrical bravado Miss Witherspoon calls for. She struggles to communicate Veronica’s pain and terror, and without a powerhouse performance to drive the production, Director Ryder Thornton’s staging remains stuck in first gear. The result is that with the exception of Staton’s vivacious Jesus, the production is noticeably listless and disappointingly mediocre, serviceable at best. Thornton’s efficient direction brings some sense of order to Durang’s wandering, nonlinear plot, but can’t cover up the fact that very little in Miss Witherspoon is particularly funny or clever. Nor is the play especially dark. Known for his black comedies satirizing family life and religious dogma, Durang’s best plays find twisted humor in a tragic world. But here, the troubles of the world seem remote, making it difficult to empathize with Veronica’s torment. Even a nuclear explosion that rocks heaven has little impact.

Described by Durang as “half-fable, half-fantasy,” the play proposes that (in Durang’s words) “one can effect a certain outcome by one’s choice.” It is a surprisingly optimistic (not to mention idealistic message) for the usually acerbic satirist, and could be looked at as somewhat empty idealism. On the other hand, if even one or two people who attend Miss Witherspoon make a New Year’s resolution to better themselves and the world, one senses the sentimentalist in Durang will be happy.

Through Jan. 9. $18-$25. Adrienne Theater Main Stage, 2030 Sansom St. 215.563.7500. newcitystage.org

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