08/02/2013 03:02 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2013

First Nighter: "rogerandtom" Clever but Maybe Too Clever; "I Forgive You, Ronald Reagan" Partially Forgivable

Playwriting as therapy is hardly a new concept. It might even be a challenge to find a single work in the annals that doesn't hint that the author is working out some personal mental quirk.
Julien Schwab, however, may be the first playwright to be quite so upfront about it. He tackles the recognizable phenomenon in his 2003 rogerandtom, which Personal Space Theatrics is giving a new production at Here and which is clearly delighting many patrons. This writer, however, feels obliged to say that clever as the premise is, its metatheater (i. e., theater about theater) aspects--about using a play as a means of reconciling two brothers--come across as too precious by half.
At its outset, the cutely titled rogerandtom (that's right, no capital letters and all scrunched together) looks to be an elegantly tense drama about the end of a Yuppie marriage. Penny (Suzy Jane Hunt) is already distressed in their very modern flat (David Esler's eye-catching design) over something unspecified when about-to-be-former-husband Rich (Thieriot) arrives to finish packing the boxes he's taking with him on the separation.
Both know that Penny is waiting for her brother Roger (Eric T. Miller) to show up so she can take him to a play their brother Tom, estranged from Roger for many years (and unseen here), has opening that night--a play Roger may resist attending because previous plays Tom has written have included Roger as an unsympathetic character. That's as Roger sees it.
But--spoiler alert!--when Roger bursts into the apartment from the actual audience and through what is supposed to be a wall, things change radically. And with that spoiler alert established, there's no reason to continue itemizing Schwab's surprises--except to say that, among them, Rich turns out not to be who he's been identified as being and Penny may not be who she is, either.
Following who any one of the three figures is in this curious cross between a Jorge Luis Borges short story and Gaslight is a large part of what amuses patrons so constantly. On the other hand, absorbing Schwab's intricate plotting isn't an easy task. It's almost as if the set--with its bed noticeably too short for anyone over five feet to use and its frame-only mirror--has turned into a maze from which only the savviest spectators will emerge fully informed about the goings-on.
Oh, well, give Schwab points for devising a theater piece that takes on the infrequently mooted deployment of the true motivations behind many, if not most, theater pieces. While at it, also give points to director Nicholas Cotz for assuring that the actors coax everything they can from the endless double-edged lines.
The tall Miller makes the most of Roger's understandable confusion. He's a male Alice in a Manhattan wonderland. Hunt's Penny, also caught out by the play-within-a-play twist, uses her willowy good looks and distressed expressions to the utmost. Thieriot, not only as Rich but also as someone calling himself William, interprets the figure most aware of what's really going on. Perhaps he does so with too much open-mouthed enjoyment, but at the same time he has undeniable charm.
I suppose the thing to say is that despite my annoyance with the recurring huh?-what? elements of rogerandtom, I never stopped watching. Maybe that's praise enough.
While rogerandtom takes brotherly love and its complications as a theme, John S. Anastasi's poorly named I Forgive You, Ronald Reagan, at the Beckett, is concerned with interrupted friendships between colleagues and neighbors.
Air traffic controllers Ray (PJ Benjamin) and Buzz (Robert Emmet Lunney) part ways in 1981 when the former commits himself to the strike that Ronald Reagan denounced as a criminal act and the latter crosses the picket lines. The pals' disagreement on the issue is the scene one set-up. The remaining six scenes in the two-act drama unfold in 2004 and involve Ray's resentment and descent into madness over Reagan's following through on firing the union-adherent strikers and, more specifically, over what he believes is his chum's betrayal.
Ray's inflexible stance--he won't forgive Reagan or Buzz--affects his marriage to stand-by-your-man wife Jane (Patricia Richardson) and pampered, wannabe actress daughter Tess (Danielle Faitelson). Actually, it's Ray's inexorable alienation of the staunch Jane and Tess--she becomes enamored of Buzz's (unseen) lawyer son David--that takes up most of the stage time.
And therein lies the drawback in a well-made play that could be more well made. Anastasi takes his time filling in the strengths and weaknesses of the husband-wife and father-daughter relationships as well as stretching out Buzz's often-mentioned, apparently psychologically destructive trips to the attic. What he does during those compulsive jaunts is kept quiet until late behind a second-floor scrim on Craig Napoliello's depiction of a middle-class home. When their purpose is revealed, it leads to a sequence meant to devastate the audience but results instead in nervous laughter.
Benjamin gives his all to the scene, under Charles Abbott's sure directing hand, and the other actors also keep up the emotional fight. One small, possibly unresolvable problem: Since scene one takes place 23 years before the rest of the play, Benjamin and Lunney are required to wear wigs, and, oh boy, are they frightening!