January 15, 2009

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Money, power and family
Review: Merrimack Rep’s latest from a Massachusetts playwright

By Heidi Masek hmasek@hippopress.com

Richard Dresser’s third show in his trilogy about happiness in America took his characters on a strange journey in A View of the Harbor.

Merrimack Repertory Theatre presents it now, with direction from Charles Towers, who also directed it for the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in West Virginia. MRT held a script reading with Urban Village Art Series and UMass-Lowell last year.

The play starts out with an almost Britcom style of humor and delivery.

Paige (Stephanie Fieger), a union organizer who grew up wealthy, arrives with her boyfriend Nick (Kyle Fabel) in front of his family’s decrepit Maine home. She gushes tactlessly about their poverty, yet Nick doesn’t take offense.

You don’t have to guess that Paige subconsciously wants to “save” her macho factory worker Nick. Dresser has her straight out tell Nick this.

Billed as comedy, it’s Andrea Cirie as Nick’s sister Kathryn and Anderson Matthews as their father Daniel whose lines garner the most laughs. Straight-faced, they make statements that can be perceived as shocking. Matthews, especially, can be a scene-stealer.

When Kathryn discovers Nick and Paige outside, she yells into the house, “He’s here. And he brought one.” Cirie gives the line with loud, stern, clarity — not masking displeasure. “One” likely refers to Nick’s latest hussy.

From there follows a confusing breakfast, giving the impression that the family is not just poor but eccentric or insane. It provides more entertainment, with lines like Kathryn’s “Your slut seems like a bit of a simpleton.”

Paige initially treats Daniel like a simpleton, although his abuses sound more like those of a retired professor. Paige is not deterred, oddly. Not even after Kathryn explains key things about the family that Nick had kept from Paige.

The set of a front of a decaying home, by Richard Wadsworth Chambers, is massive and translucent, making it something of a ghost house. It looks as if a house would have to endure one serious case of neglect to look that bad.

To add to the strange and unrealistic situation Dresser has set up, Kathryn talks fondly of time she spent working in Worcester. The audience in Lowell laughed heartily at the town’s mention, because, well, it’s Worcester.  (Dresser also grew up just outside the town.)

In the play, there’s just a dash of discussion about the ethical questions of working conditions, war contracts, and whether having a dangerous, low-paid job in a factory is better than having no job.

As for whether the characters get what makes them happy in the end, it’s sort of unclear. Wealth, power, normalcy, a harbor from the world, people to help, someone to love, and escape from family, the past, responsibility and tradition are all explored as possibilities for happiness.

As for comedy, there’s plenty of entertainment to be had in the play, to the point where a few times when the dialogue is heavier or more abstract it seems almost off theme.

A View from the Harbor runs Wednesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 4:30 and 8:30 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. through Feb. 1. There is a post-show forum Thursday, Jan. 15, and Young Professionals Night, Thursday, Jan. 22, at 7 p.m. Ticket costs range from $32 to $56, with student tickets available for $15. Merrimack Repertory Theatre is at 50 East Merrimack St. in Lowell (www.merrimackrep.org, 978-654-4MRT). — Heidi Masek


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