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WONDERLAND.

(COMEDY-DRAMA; AMERICAN PLACE THEATER; 199 SEATS; $40 TOP)

NEW YORK An American Place Theater presentation of a play in two acts written and directed by Julia Dahl. Sets and costumes, Beowulf Boritt; lighting, Ryan E. McMahon; production stage manager, Mike Sehleifer. Opened June 14, 1999. Reviewed June 13. Running time: 2 HOURS.
Josephine                  Kate Jennings Grant
Edgar                          Paul Fitzgerald
Henry                           Henry Strozier
Frances                  Christine Marie Burke
Dennis                    James Patrick Stuart
Charlie                             Brad Beyer


There will be one 15-minute information," strangely announces the program for "Wonderland," but that typographical non sequitur is in fact a lot more thought-provoking than anything in the play itself. Peopled by characters who range from mildly irritating to entirely repellent, Julia

Dahl's play is a glib and superficial examination of angst among the young, white and well-to-do. Dahl is a writer and "consulting producer" for the Fox youth dramedy "Party of Five," and her play boasts its own party of five comfortably troubled young folk: a thirtysomething pair of siblings and their three ex- and current lovers, gathered together at dad's homestead in Sag Harbor one `90s New Year's Day.

Prize for most aggravating, in a hotly contested race, must go to the central character, Frances (played in aptly annoying and mannered style by Christine Marie Burke). Presumably meant to be an adorable, hypersensitive madcap, Frances cringes with pain when the heartless Josephine (Kate Jennings Grant), her brother Edgar's ice-princess fiancee, breaks into a breakfast muffin in an excessively brutal manner. "Who raped me?" she whines a minute later when she discovers her journal open on the kitchen table -- where she left it.

Frances has tossed aside the trappings of East Coast privilege to pursue a writing (and waitressing) career in slacker central, Venice Beach, Calif., a decision that, in the universe of the play's stereotypical WASPs, apparently betokens serious mental illness. Out west, she's hooked up with Charlie (Brad Beyer), himself a stereotype of another stripe: the monosyllabic surfer whose cluelessness causes much mirth among this young and cynical set.

But Dahl's grasp on her characters is slipshod; they desert their principles willy-nilly when the plot requires it. After swooning over the happily unambitious Charlie for much of act one, the hitherto free-spirited Frances suddenly turns on him, sneeringly asking, "Why don't you own adult dishware?" This tender soul later puts forth the philosophical idea that all suffer equally, theorizing whimsically that prisoners of war don't, after all, have to worry about rent.

Equally hazily conceived is the hard-driving Josephine, whose ambitions for Edgar have pushed him into a congressional race. "Did we get her contribution yet?" is her first reaction when hearing that a family friend has been hospitalized. And yet the pearl studs in this headband-wearing preppie's ears quiver with rage when she's surrounded by the excesses of wealth at the local restaurant, where 8800 bottles of wine are on the menu.

Indeed Dahl's characters are so unreal and unsympathetic that when one attempts suicide, it only gives rise to relief-- no more speechifying from her for awhile, anyway! The author directs a competent cast that struggles to put some human flesh on these cardboard figures, mostly in vain.

Grant exudes a canny, cool intelligence that makes a good impression even when here character doesn't. Beyer is impressively dim as the hapless Charlie, and James Patrick Stuart is suitably oily as his more polished rival for Frances' affections. There's not much Paul Fitzgerald can do as the disillusioned Edgar, except act disillusioned, which he does admirably. He cannot, however, save the play's patience-straining final speech, in which Edgar uses his family tragedy for sympathy in a campaign speech.

The production features a handsome, impressionistic set by the intriguingly named Beowulf Boritt, and adept lighting by Ryan E. McMahon. Scene changes are annoyingly punctuated by trendy musical selections in the manner of a film or TV soundtrack, which only accentuates the play's canned emotional fixture and overall mediocrity.3
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:ISHERWOOD, CHARLES
Publication:Variety
Article Type:Theater Review
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jun 21, 1999
Words:655
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