note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Cantabrigian-Huntington Playwright Fellow Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro, 72, has lived in Cambridge for almost 40 years, and decided it was time to write about issues affecting her local contemporaries in her two-act play, “Before I Leave You”. It’s supposed to be a love story for senior citizens, involving second chances, as they face the challenges of aging, sudden changes, and their mortality.
Although the Huntington Theatre Company has gathered a fine cast directed by accomplished Jonathan Silverstein, Alfaro’s play falls short. The characters are undeveloped, plastic, with little depth, and their relationships are superficial. Dramatic scenes lack impact, and the ending is awkwardly predictable. There’s also a symbolic painting of coyotes that hangs suspended in the middle of the stage, with little or no reference to its existence. At one point, the four longtime friends talk about the “new” Cambridge, and how it’s changing --- that coyotes now roam the streets. So what? Like the painting, that conversation hangs suspended.
However, the audience appreciated local references to Boston, Cambridge and North Shore sites.
At the outset, Alfaro’s characters are interesting, intelligent people, each with individual talent. Jewish friend Jeremy (Ross Bickell) is writing another big novel; Japanese-American professor Koji, (Glenn Kubota) who yearns to direct “King Lear,” is stuck directing a play about Japanese internment camps, written by a younger Japanese woman. Koji’s wife, Emily, (Kippy Goldfarb) has begun painting again, with her works exhibited in local sites. Jeremy’s flighty, talkative sister, Trish, (Karen MacDonald) has come to live with her novelist-teacher brother because she lost her job as a realtor in New Hampshire. She also is divorced from her Russian husband, Dimitri.
And Koji and Emily’s only offspring, Peter, 22, (Alexis Camins) has spent years in therapy, has a job packing groceries at Shaw’s, and, like Trish, is still seeking to find himself. To his father’s dismay, Peter has a girlfriend who is 27 - five years older than he - and the single mother of a 4-year-old daughter.
While Emily is nurturing, Koji is angrily annoyed with his son, with whom he has had a bristling relationship for years. The kindly, easygoing Jeremy is Peter’s idol and safe harbor.
Set in the fall of 2008, in designer Allen Moyer’s bizarre arrangement of dusty-looking stacks of books and bookcases, with lighting designer David Lander changing colors at times to alter the mood, the play shifts between the Royal East, a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, Jeremy’s and Emily and Koji’s living rooms. The bookcases are a looming backdrop as three sets of furniture sporadically move forward, sideways and backwards to change location.
The play starts with a jolt, as Jeremy chokes on his food and convulses to the floor. A neurological MRI has determined he lost 5 percent of his brain functioning, and has “asymmetrical speckling,” Trish declares. Jeremy worries how fast his mental deterioration and possible demise will escalate.
Koji has recaptured his Asian roots and second youth, covertly carrying on an affair with the younger playwright. He cowardly packs up to leave Emily and asks Jeremy to tell her. Unfortunately, she has overheard.
While the first act ambles along, excluding Jeremy’s choking spasm, there’s nothing compelling here. The second act improves as MacDonald’s terrific portrayal of Trish becomes more pivotal, but there’s a pervasive flatness.
Alfaro has the germ of a good idea in “Before I Leave You,” but she must smooth out rough edges and awkward lines and define her characters further.
BOX INFO: Two-act play written by Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro, appearing now through Nov. 13 at the Huntington Theatre Company’s other venue, Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA), 527 Tremont St., Boston. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m.;select Sundays, 7 p.m.; matinees, select Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $25; seniors, $5 discount; subscribers, BU community members, $10 discount; patrons 35 years old and younger with valid ID, $25; students, military, $15. Call 617-266-0800, visit huntingtontheatre.org, the Box Office at BCA, or BU Theatre (264 Huntington Ave., Boston).