A Cambridge Story: The Huntington’s “Before I Leave You”

by Bryce Lambert on November 1, 2011

It’s nice to see a local play; one peppered with references to the the Peabody Museum, “The Basement,” and Slumerville. It’s also nice to see the Huntington playing to its audience base, producing a play that deals with aging–an alternative to a popular culture that’s preoccupied with youth. But while local playwright Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro’s Before I Leave You reaches a touching and humble romantic conclusion, mostly carried by Ross Bickell’s (Jeremy) deep and eloquent performance, it’s a rough and inarticulate stumble there.

As Allen Moyer’s set of whitewashed books immediately indicates, we’re dealing with an intellectual crowd. Jeremy is an author and university professor, Koji (Glenn Kubota) is a theater academic, and his wife Emily (Kippy Goldfarb) paints. Jeremy’s down and out realtor sister Trish (Karen MacDonald) is the fourth wheel as she’s only as coarse as she is dumb, and Koji and Emily’s son Peter (Alexis Camins) has disappointed his father by choosing a life bagging groceries at Shaw’s, when he could at least be working the counter at Formaggio. While our primary characters have enjoyed an intellectual life of privilege, all the time they must have spent pursuing those advanced degrees seems to have stunted their growth. Where the college pals of St. Elmo’s Fire dealt with their shit as twenty-somethings, these folks are just getting around to it. Koji, at 62, runs off with a forty-something playwright and Jeremy finally makes his big move on Emily after pining after her for 40+ years.

The present of the play strikes me as strangely out of touch. Trish, who runs up her credit card on several Newbury Street shopping sprees desperately chasing youth, treats synthetic fabrics and open-backed tops as hot trends, showing them off like they’re an iPad. The characters grapple with a present that doesn’t seem like ours and shouldn’t be theirs. But, perhaps this is just the wishful thinking of a twenty-six year old that he’ll have settled into something at sixty. And oddly enough, it’s the play’s twenty-two year old who’s the most mature. Peter takes his strained relationship with his father in stride, confidently pursuing love, fatherhood, and adult life where his elders falter.

Alfaro has structured her play in vignettes that shift from Jeremy’s bookish home bought with the proceeds from his first novel, Koji & Emily’s apartment, and what I think is Harvard Square’s Yenching. It’s either due to this stilted action or under-developed dialogue that the the plots fail to develop, instead coming and going out of nowhere and depending on their predictability to reach the audience. Kubota doesn’t lend his character Koji much sympathy or depth, but he is damn good at coming off as a prick who we’re sure will eventually push his son away and his wife into Jeremy’s arms. (Only one ambiguous reference to Love in the Time of Cholera could make us believe that somehow, in the only way his inveterate narcissism would allow, he’s doing right by his wife and oldest friend.)

Bickell’s acting is solid throughout, a fact helped by his character’s medical problems being the only serious plot that’s fleshed out completely inside the play and by the threat of death’s tendency to dwarf everything around it. MacDonald is entertaining in her dunce cap, playing up Trish’s misplaced confidence well. Goldfarb is warm and reactive in romantic scenes opposite Bickell and Camins does well at conjuring up some of the emotional content that might’ve been better developed in the script. Although witty banter over Hunan beef and hot & spicy tofu doesn’t key into dramatic tensions as well as it should, it is interesting by itself and I admire Alfaro and the Huntington’s choice of subject matter. I just wish it had come off better.

The Huntington’s Before I Leave You runs through November 13th at the BCA’s Calderwood Pavilion (527 Tremont). Ticks run about $60 ($25 if you’re under 35) at bostontheatrescene.com.

Huntington Before I Leave You

Ross Bickell (as Jeremy) doting on Kippy Goldfarb (as Emily) (T. Charles Erickson)

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