September 29, 2010

"Now Circa Then" is an All-Time Charmer

As anyone who has ever watched even a trailer for a Jennifer Aniston movie knows, romantic comedies are an endangered species.  They aren’t in such great shape on the New York stage either. The fact that the dyspeptic Neil LaBute is probably our leading chronicler of modern romance gives you some idea about the state of the genre. Which is why I was initially intrigued—and later charmed—by Now Circa Then, the appealing comedy that opened this week at ArsNova, the theater space way over on 54th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues. 

The play is set in a museum much like the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side that has restored modest tenement apartments and celebrates the hardscrabble life of the immigrants who lived in them at the turn of the last century. The sole characters are two contemporary twentysomethings, who work at the museum as historical reenactors, the costumed guides who act out the lives of the former tenants for the sightseers who come to visit.

Gideon is a history fanatic who takes the job very seriously.  Margie is a slacker who’s just trying to earn enough money to pay her rent. She thinks he’s a prig. He’s offended by her lack of commitment and by her inauthenticity: they’re portraying a Jewish couple and she’s Filipina. But both can’t help noticing that the other is awfully cute.  It’s a perfect rom-com set-up and the fun is watching how they fall for one another—and what happens afterward.

Their story is juxtaposed against that of the marriage of the immigrant couple they play and playwright Carly Mensch, who has a day job writing for the TV series “Weeds,” does a nice job of balancing the light comedy and some deeper thoughts about the differences between relationships then and now. (Click here to read a Time Out New York interview with Mensch.)

There are a few missteps. The backstory about Gideon’s dead mother is overworked. Director Jason Eagan is less handy with the play's serious moments than he is with its humorous ones. The play runs close to two hours and that’s too long. But the production has been blessed by two delightfully charismatic actors, Stephen Plunkett and Maureen Sebastian, who turn Gideon and Margie into real people whom you grow to care about during the course of the play. 

Everyone in the audience at the performance I attended—from some beer-drinking frat boy types in the back row (ArsNova offers free drinks) to a grey-haired grandmotherly type in the first—was openly pulling for the pair and having a good time watching as Gideon and Margie tried to make their thing work.

Eagan has directed the play with as much fluidity as he can, given the theater’s small black-box space and Now Circa Then’s huge set demands—over the course of the play the action moves from the formality of the apartment’s sitting room to the domestic comfyness of its kitchen to the bittersweet intimacy of its bedroom. That set, by the way, is so richly detailed and period-perfect that it looks as though designer Lauren Helpern lifted it wholesale from the Tenement Museum.

Succumbing to the current theatrical vogue for augmenting shows with continuing-ed style lectures, the producers have scheduled a series of talkback sessions with demographers, historians and preservationists through the end of the run which ends Oct. 9.  It’s the kind of stuff I usually eat right up but it’s not what this play is really about.  It’s about people and the way history—our own and even that of those we learn about—can shape us. And that doesn’t require any extras. The show is worth the trip to far West 54th Street all by itself.

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