Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Angel or Enemy?

Written by Moira Buffini
Directed by David Esbjornson
Starring Patricia Conolly, Lisa Emery, Zach Grenier, Lee Aaron Rosen, Samantha Soule, Libby Woodbridge

April 23-June 6, 2010
Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street

Give props to playwright Moira Buffini for not following well-trod routes in where she sets her play Gabriel, ostensibly taking place during World War II. Instead of Nazi-occupied Paris or bombed-out London, she opts for Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands near the northern French coast which were British territories and peopled with British subjects. When the government decided they would prove impossible to protect, they were left to be occupied by the Nazis for the duration of the war.

Buffini uses that history as the starting point for a hollow allegory about survival amid war’s horrors. The Becquet family comprises Jeanne, an attractive middle-age mother who's learned to collaborate with the enemy; her 20ish daughter-in-law, Lilian, married to Jeanne's son, off fighting the war; and Estelle, her precocious 10-year-old daughter.

When Lilian finds a naked and handsome young man on the beach, she and Estelle bring him to the house; hidden in the attic, he's nursed back to health by the women. Conveniently, the man has amnesia: since he speaks German and English fluently, no one can tell whether he's a British or a Nazi soldier. Estelle christens him “Gabriel,” but whether he's an angel or not will be tested by the appearance of Von Pfunz, head of the local German regiment, who—despite his affection for Jeanne, which she reciprocates to a point—is put off by Estelle's juvenile harassment (like urinating in his boots and swiping his diary) and thoroughly repelled by Lilian's Jewishness.

Gabriel contains the ingredients for a diverting if old-fashioned espionage melodrama, but its blandness is due to both Buffini’s limitations as a writer and David Esbjornson's skewed staging, embodied in Riccardo Hernandez's spare set that slopes for no good—or even not so good—reason, and the island’s imposing fortifications are heavy-handedly hinted at on the back wall. Contrarily, Scott Zielinski's artfully composed lighting and Martin Pakledinaz's evocative costumes are sensible in their sobriety.

Lisa Emery (Jeanne), Samantha Soule (Lilian) and Lee Aaron Rosen (Gabriel) all give straightforward performances that have scant shading, while two other actors mar the play. Zach Grenier's Von Pfunz is the clich├ęd Nazi from countless movies and plays, rotten to the core but hypocritically raging against Estelle's “uncivilized” behavior. Grenier also hisses and giggles with unsubtle menace: Christoph Waltz’s Oscar-winning portrayal in Inglourious Basterds proved that Nazi villains could be multidimensional monsters, but Grenier and Esbjornson revert back to the old days.

Libby Woodbridge, a 20-ish actress, is never believable as the 10-year-old Estelle. She's tall and thin, which makes her look 17 or 18, which is fatal for a play hinging on the young girl pitted against the big bad Nazi, even at one point brandishing a knife against him. Maybe a younger actress couldn't do all this plausibly, but neither does Woodbridge.

There’s a fascinating psychological case study inside Gabriel about a young man, his memory wiped clean, who might either re-learn his fascist tendencies or return to the side of the angels. Too bad Buffini never follows up on such a promising storyline, to Gabriel’s—and Gabriel’s—ultimate detriment.
originally posted on timessquare.com

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