Alice in Underwear by the Natural Theatricals
By: Tim Treanor
In Paula Alprin’s new play, Alison Alice (Alprin), a dyspeptic, Anglophile critic with a bad back, is given ninety minutes of what for by spokespeople for the mysterious producer, Sue Z. Not that you’ll mind too much – after all, Alice is an anti-Irish, anti-French anti-Semite, who casually abuses her secretary. Worse, she’s a critic. And when it turns out that the spokespersons are something more than ordinary press flacks, watch out!
In her unusually chatty program notes, Alprin lays out her play’s objective plainly. She means to skewer critics who base their judgments not on anything intrinsic to the play, but on the dramas in their own personal lives. Such critics, she claims, wield their vast powers corruptly.
Of course, she’s right, except for the supposition that critics have vast powers. The observation is true equally of anyone who exercises discretion in his profession. The judge. The business executive, poised to decide whether another round of rightsizing is required. The police officer, trying to determine whether to introduce the agitated suspect to the God of his choice.
The various spokespersons in Alice in Underwear spend their time trying to call Alice to account for an actress who popped herself after being the subject of a devastating Alice review. After a prolonged inquisition in which the spokespersons appear to develop supernatural powers, Alice eventually admits that, yes, her critique was driven by a parallel between the play and an unhappy event in her own home life, and in addition by the opportunity to use a clever headline of her own invention.
While I devoutly hope that what I am about to say causes no one to do a bad thing to herself, I must confess that Alice in Underwear falls well short of the objective that it sets for itself. The dialogue – while at times extremely clever and poetic – meanders irrelevantly over the landscape of related materials, and is only periodically yanked back to the main point of the story. An extended dialogue about a show which Alice liked and everyone else panned serves no discernable purpose whatsoever. Similarly, Alice’s diatribes about an absent critic – Sandy “Sunday” Hunter – describe nothing and illuminate nothing.
Much of the dialogue seems to be shoehorned into Alprin’s didactic and metaphoric construct. I heard quite enough by way of unmotivated lectures on the Greek origin of words and the relationship between Irish straightback dancing and English clog dancing. Alice’s extensive description of Sue Z’s background, done over her cell phone to her secretary, seemed similarly, and amateurishly, designed to inform the audience, rather than the purported listener. And Alice’s description of an Oedipal background story was as histrionic – and hysterical – as the tales of the ancient Greeks. This may have served the purposes of the Natural Theatricals’ Hellenic theme for this season (interestingly, all the restaurant ads in the program were for Greek restaurants) but it did not serve the purposes of the story.
Another metaphorical construct forced on this story without discernable purpose was the resemblance between the four spokespersons and the Tea Party participants in Alice in Wonderland. Chester (Colin H. Smith) played the role of the White Rabbit; Maude (Laura E. Quenzel) stood in for the Queen of Hearts; Rupert (Joshua Steinberg) seemed to be the Mad Hatter; and Dorsey (Jennifer Reitz) was the door mouse. Except for Reitz, who was compelled by the script to constantly fall asleep, these actors all rose above the limitations of the script, and delivered credible performances. Quenzel in particular filled her character with a sort of easy menace.
Alprin the writer saddles Alprin the actor with a nearly impossible role – one which sustains a single note of rage and pain, occasionally veering off into rage and sorrow, for an hour and a half. It is, in short, something out of Greek tragedy. A Vanessa Redgrave or a Jennifer Mendenhall can pull if off, but Alprin, like most actors, cannot, and by the thirty-minute mark her character is pretty grating.
Alprin’s script is full of clever wordplay, but it closer to the schizophrenic’s than the poet’s, in that it appears to be without constructive purpose. For example, she has Alice call her father a “likeable Viking” – a pleasing phrase, except for the fact that according to Maude her name is Greek, not Scandinavian.
Alprin is a lyrical writer, and perhaps the best part of the show was a two-song set which Maude belted out in the middle of one of her denunciations of Alice. This little diversion showed Alprin’s gifts to best advantage, and Quenzel has a clear, sweet voice. But, like much of the rest of the show, its motivation was murky.
Alice in Underwear resembles the first draft of a script. It showed considerable scholarship and some lively language, but little of it was integrated into an actual story. Natural Theatricals, who has dedicated its season to Hellenic themes, should review the application of Aristotle’s poetic unities to this play.
Alice in Underwear runs Thursdays through Mondays until July 30 in the amphitheatre of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria.. All shows are at 8 except the Sunday show, which is at 2. There is also a Saturday matinee at 2. You may order tickets in advance from http://www.naturaltheatricals.com or by mail at 605 Queen Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.