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Sarah Marshall has sung Shakespeare; howled Elektra; cozied up to monkeys, monsters, and Margaridas; and even spent a few onstage months as a dog, so it’s probably not wise to call the hilarious comic marathon she’s running in Paula Vogel’s The Mineola Twins her most out-there assignment. Still, it has to be close.
Marshall is playing both of the title charactersMyrna, a virginity-espousing homebody who’s as conservative as she is stacked; and Myra, a radical activist who’s “flat as a pancake” and more often than not (at least when the football team’s around) flat on her back. These twins, as might be expected, take different paths from high school to parenthood, and it’s Vogel’s agitprop-ish, not to mention Forrest Gump-ish, conceit that they represent the paths of conservatism and liberalism in post-World War II America.
During the Eisenhower years, good girl Myrna holds both boyfriend Jim and the outside world at arm’s length”You know how I am with names in the newspaper,” she chirps airily, “Arthur Miller, Joe DiMaggio, Joseph Stalin”while bad girl Myra teaches Jim the facts of life and laments that “Mineola’s so dull, there wasn’t even a Red Scare here.” Within a decade, Myra’s robbing banks “for the cause” with her counterculture buddies, and Myrna’s worrying about her son’s long hair while holding down the suburban fort. A decade later and they’re still farther apart, Myrna having written a tome called Profiles in Chastity while hosting a reactionary radio talk show, and Myra and her lesbian partner lamenting the neo-con tendencies of their turkey-baster baby as they head a Planned Parenthood chapter.
Schematic? Sure. But in Darryl V. Jones’ antic production, the jokes come fast and the playing is furious enough that even patrons who don’t share the author’s sentiments will be laughing too hard to quibble much until the tail end of the evening. Vogel is, as always, opposed to narrow notions of femininity, so Myrna’s blend of Betty Crocker and Phyllis Schlafly gets held up to a bit more ridicule than Myra’s mix of Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem. But the writing is reasonably evenhanded, giving Myrna an appealing vocal manner (“You won’t tarry at the Tick Tock, will you?”) that goes a long way toward softening her sharp-edged conservatism. Not that she can’t pack punch into a punch line when required. It would take too long to explain how the phrase “My sister used my knockers as terrorist camouflage” fits into the proceedings, but trust me, it’s a haymaker.
Marshall is pretty astonishing as a quick-change artist, and her way with Vogel’s single-entendres can be deliciously devious. But she’s hardly the evening’s only attraction. MaryBeth Wise, playing the twins’ lovers, both male and female, is a gender-switching treat. And Josh Lefkowitz has fun with the politically divergent progeny that result from the sisters’ various unions. Adding a bit of style to the evening’s sidelines are a pair of sunglassed Men in Black, who gyrate through several decades of dance crazes as Daniel Ettinger’s set revolves from ’50s pop stand to ’90s birth-control clinic.
Woolly Mammoth’s production enhancements, mind you, can’t entirely hide the play’s slips from satire to mere sketch comedy, or blend Vogel’s overstatedly apocalyptic dream sequences into a sitcom format that otherwise contents itself with mixing elements of Family Ties, All in the Family, and The Patty Duke Show. But for anyone who’s been alarmed lately at the increasing polarization in U.S. politics, The Mineola Twins will certainly strike chords. Turning them harmonic in an era that seems to pride itself on political dissonance may simply be too much to ask.
“Where are you now?” wonders Constantine Levin as Anna Karenina’s expression darkens suddenly in the evening that bears her namebut is as much his story as hers. Levin asks the question on several occasions as Helen Edmundson’s briskly theatrical adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel leaps from pillar to post at the Olney Theatre Center, and Anna’s response generally cites some social gathering or other. But where she really isalmost invariablyis at loose ends.
So is Levin, and for similar reasons. Headstrong creatures both, these two prisoners of society’s notions of duty and class spend an enormous amount of stage time mooning over the lovers they can’t love and the lives they can’t live, only to have the great misfortune of getting exactly what they think they wantand finding it wanting.
Tolstoy’s story is there pretty much intact. Social butterfly and bored wife Anna (Valerie Leonard) knows the penalties for disobeying social strictures in 19th-century Russia, but she can’t help herself. She’s several years and one child into a marriage to a man she concedes is “good and kind and remarkable in his way” when she falls hard for the dashing Count Vronsky (Nigel Reed). Abandoning her husband will rip apart her life; staying with him will shred her sense of self. She opts for self and suffers the consequences.
Country squire Levin (Jeffries Thaiss), although himself thoroughly unsocial, fares no better. He’s smitten by a woman named Kitty (Tara Giordano), but she’s also in Vronsky’s thrall, so Levin abandons himself for a time to economic theory and egalitarian farming techniques. Then a glimpse of Kitty in a passing coach sends him reeling once more. At one point or another, everyone swoons, collapses, or otherwise visibly disintegrates, and Cheryl Faraone’s fever dream of a staging finds choreographically varied ways to represent their passionate mental states. A ragged figure of Death hovers in designer Milagros Ponce de Leon’s shadowy arches as couples couple at the lip of the stage. Anna watches Vronsky ride to victory in a horse race, imagining that he’s mounted not a horse but hera fantasy realized on stage with bucking and whinnying that’s nothing if not explicit.
The considerable skill brought to bear by the design team is matched at nearly every turn by the energetic heavings of an appropriately passionate cast. Still, there’s only so much shuddering and fevered embracing an audience can take without starting to find the whole affair a bit overheated. The condensation of a thousand-page novel’s sprawl to under three hours of stage time has been accomplished with admirable economy in a script Edmundson conceived for London’s Shared Experience Theater Company (which visited the Kennedy Center two years ago with her equally ambitious and more eloquently realized adaptation of George Elliot’s Mill on the Floss). But cramming so many betrayals and reconciliations into so short a span can’t help highlighting the melodrama that Tolstoy finessed by painstakingly exploring the characters’ psychology. Except for an initially hysterical but eventually pragmatic doormatDolly (Julie-Ann Eliott), who knows perfectly well that her callow husband (Clinton Brandhagen) is cheating on her, and has made a conscious decision not to noticeall of the characters end up appearing slightly deranged as they anguish over emotions modern society associates chiefly with lovesick teenagers. They’re prisoners of their time and class, of course, but to contemporary eyes they’re nonetheless behaving like ninnieswhich makes them trying company after a while, no matter how attractive the stage pictures that surround them. CP