It is not an auspicious sign when a generally-positive, ever-hopeful drama critic sees fit to start off a review with some such elliptical statement as "the trouble with whimsy..." But here we are faced, I am afraid, with a play that treads the line of whimsical fantasy but falls short of its apparent goal of revealing truths about our own nature.
It is also not an auspicious sign when you glance at the program a few minutes in for the name of the interesting young actress playing the central role, and deduce that she must be one of the characters listed as "Voice" or "Wall." The actress turns out to be Stephanie Wright Thompson, playing Voice.
The Hatmaker's Wife is the play in question, presented by Playwrights Realm in the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre. (This is the small and comfortable upstairs venue in the Playwrights Horizons building, although the program and a lobby sign carefully assure us that this is not a Playwrights Horizons production.) Playwrights Realm offers support to young, early-career playwrights. This year's recipient is Lauren Yee, a playwright from San Francisco via Yale. How and why she came up with a fantasy centering around a crotchety, old mittel-European Jewish hatmaker intertwined with ghosts, golems and talking walls in modern-day, big city-American suburbia is not the question. If it worked, certainly, we would all be very happy with said whimsy.
An un-named leading lady who writes instruction manuals for technical products -- the aforementioned Voice -- and her school-teacher fiancé move into a rundown house twenty minutes outside the city. Voice hears voices, which come from an invisible/imaginary character called Wall (who occasionally appears behind various scrims). She also sees the long-deceased little-old-man hatmaker, who sits watching television from the easy chair -- the only furniture in the living room of the house Voice is renting -- while eating peanuts and avoiding his shrewish wife. Someone -- Wall, presumably, or maybe the propman -- feeds sheets of computer paper through the airvent, from which Voice reads the story of the hatmaker and his wife. In the end, Ms. Yee ties Voice to this little old Jewish couple in a manner so fantastical that I'm still scratching my head over it.
Matters are helped immensely by the performers. David Margulies has been effectively playing variations of this little old Jewish man for years. This time, he has a role that allows him to be both funny and touching (in the manner of Jack Gilford). Marcia Jean Kurtz and Peter Friedman, as the hatmaker's wife and friend, ably supplement Margulies. (Friedman is at his best in his final scene, when his character seems to have jumped over a couple of generations.) Thompson is convincing throughout as the young woman, while Frank Harts -- as the boyfriend -- must switch off to play the grunting, mud-covered Golem, who looks and acts like something out of Frankenstein or maybe Young Frankenstein.
Director Rachel Chavkin is rated highly on our scorecard at present, thanks to Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. (Ticketbuyer alert: this remarkable new musical has just announced it will be moving its portable tent to the vacant lot just west of the Imperial Theatre on 45th Street, reopening on September 24.) Chavkin has been able to more or less effectively weave the two worlds of The Hatmaker's Wife. The playwright, though, has not -- in what appears to be the third separate production of the play, following others in San Diego and Fairfax, Virginia -- yet found a way to make her fantasy convincing.