The Public Theater is usually associated with provocative, often political fare -- so it's a bit of a surprise to see Jonathan Marc Sherman's Knickerbocker performed. The production is an intimate work, resting on 40-year-old Jerry's impending fatherhood. Sherman, who has long traced his own emotional travails, starting with the heartfelt Women and Wallace in 1990, keeps the tone light here.
Knickerbocker is a series of vignettes; Jerry (Alexander Chaplin) is a sweet, but self-involved; he worries if he is ready to parent. He and his wife (Mia Barron) are expecting a boy and one feels more than a little sympathy for her; she'll be raising two children simultaneously. Similarly, when Jerry meets his friend Melvin (Ben Shenkman), he gets an earful of what to expect from parenthood. Scary? Yes. Impossible? No.
As he sits in his restaurant booth sipping Shirley Temples, which says it all, Jerry meets a series of old friends, sitcom-style, who either slyly flirt with him (Christina Kirk is terrific as his old girlfriend) or explain why marriage is ruining his life (Zak Orth as his very funny, very stoned pal.) Each exchange is meant to underscore the maturity road Jerry has ostensibly traveled, yet the dialogue is too facile, however entertaining, to mine true emotional depth.
Jerry's mother died when he was young -- and the trauma has clearly impacted all future relationships. Pain and confusion is explored in all the interplays, but in a breezy style. The one exception, and it's the play's strongest, most moving scene, is with Jerry's dad (a spot-on Bob Dishy,) who insists on talking about his sex life to his freaked-out son. Knickerbocker, for all its laughs, and there are many, would have done well to end the play here. No one said fatherhood would be easy, but it's better to face it standing tall, rather than on your knees.
By contrast, the one-woman show Woman Before A Glass at the Abingdon Theater focuses on the later years of Peggy Guggenheim, wealthy American art collector and eccentric -- who coveted modern art and lovers, sometimes in equal measure. Judy Rosenblatt ably portrays Guggenheim, capturing her twisted charm and pathos. The play is set in 1963-'68; Mrs. G is also in her 60s, living large in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Venice.
Narcissistic, eccentric and tormented, Guggenheim had one overarching passion: modern art. Her collection is a splendid showcase of Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Long before museums noticed Picasso, Ernst, Miro, Magritte and Pollock, she bought them. When the Nazis entered Paris, she smuggled her collection -- and several refugees -- out of Europe. Her vision is laudable, and she cuts a striking figure: art rich, emotionally poor. Her parents, husbands, lovers and children, she explains, were a source of heartache. We get an intriguing glimpse of a driven woman whose appetites are insatiable.
Lanie Robertson's play, first staged in 2005, won an Obie for Mercedes Ruehl. Rosenblatt works well in the intimate space, but she's ill-served by director Austin Pendleton, who has her bizarrely talking to walls or through props. The actress is forced to feign discussions off-stage; it would be much simpler, and less awkward for the audience, if she incorporated them into her remembrances. She and Guggenheim deserve better.
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