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Public Interest Forces Change to Main Stage

Moore Crisp and Funny in Work in Progress

(c) Schenectady Gazette

July 17, 1986

By Eleanor Koblenz

Never underestimate the power of television.

Williamstown Theatre Festival is currently running a premiere production of "Sweet Sue," a play still in progress. It's by A. R. Gurney Jr., a respected playwright among knowledgeable theater people, but, as yet, hardly one of the major voices in American theater.

But the production stars Mary Tyler Moore of television fame, so every seat for every performance has been sold, with hundreds more being turned away.

The play was originally scheduled as a tryout in the 100-seat Extension Theatre. Demand for tickets was so great that festival artistic director Nikos Psacharopoulos decided to move the show to the 500-seat main stage, fitting it into a slot for a show he was fining difficult to cast.

For the first time in festival history, reviewers were not invited to a main stage production because, officials said, constant changes are being made in the script. Something seen at one performance may be gone by the next and, by the end of the run, the whole emphasis could be different.

The audience at Tuesday night's performance saw a two-act comedy with serious overtones that owes homage to television theater in its style and episodic nature but goes deeper into character and psychological motivation.

We are presented with a two-character comedy/drama performance by four people. The heroine is a middle-age, suburban divorcee with three grown children. She has supported herself and them by designing greeting cards, notepaper, little gifts and "cute" paintings under the name of "Sweet Sue."

Into her life comes a 23-year-old Dartmouth student, invited by her son (his roommate) to spend the summer while the two paint houses.

With the son devoting all his free time to "shacking up with his girlfriend," mother and roommate spend a lot of time together. Mother falls in love with him.

This time is slim fare, given substance by a device that is simultaneously effective and maddening.

Playwright Gurney, an experimenter with traditional stage format (in his plays "The Dining Room" and "The Golden Age"), has two actors playing each of the play's two roles.

Unlike in appearances, wearing totally different clothing, they are not a depiction of two different "sides" of a character but rather "charcoal sketches" presenting several perspectives or positions simultaneously. According to Gurney, "each actor plays a fully rounded version of the character."

The device—which sometimes gives us two actors on stage, sometimes three, at times four—proves confusing until one gets used to it and accepts the convention.

In a program note Gurney says, "it's a psychological stretch." At times it seems the stretch is intended more for the author's benefit than one that adds anything to the production.

The device slows the proceedings. Just when a scene is building or a character getting up an emotional head of steam, focus shifts to the other person, requiring the audience to make the psychological jump along with the actor.

Gurney employs a cinematic staging technique that he finds very liberating; others may well find it a bit self-indulgent.

Mary Tyler Moore and Maria Tucci play Susan Wetherill, the mother, and Steven Culp and Barry Tubb play the roommate.

Moore was predictably sharp, crisp and funny. What surprised was her emotional involvement with the character, sharing introspective moments wondering "will I be 'Sweet Sue' all my life?" and musing "for 30 years I was under the parents, now am I doomed to forever worry what my children will think?"

Tucci, with a smaller piece of the role, added emotional stature. Where Moore's reactions often seemed studied, Tucci's rang truer. Whether this was by design or not a moot question at this point but the difference existed.

Culp and Tubb, younger characters and with less emotional baggage, moved easily in and out of their scenes, even to posing nude for Susan's sketching in two scenes.

With more occasion to develop rapport with Moore, Culp's reaction to her "infatuation" was stronger.

Gurney, in his '50s, often comes up with nostalgic references. "Sweet Sue" was a song of the '20s that Susan's father sang to her Moore's and Tucci's singing of the song added an authentic touch.

There are hopes among its creators that the show will eventually go to Broadway. Current audience reaction and comment should help playwright and director determine the advisability of this attempt. It will be interesting to see what ensues.

SWEET SUE by A. R. Gurney Jr. Directed by John Tillinger Starring Mary Tyler Moore and Maria Tucci Produced by Williamstown Theatre Festival. Setting designed by Santo Loquasto. Costumes by Jess Goldstein. Lightning by Arden Fingerhut. Performances in the Main Theatre, Williams College Campus, Williamstown, Mass. today at 2:30 and 8:30 p.m., tomorrow at 8:30 p.m. and Saturday at 5 and 9 p.m.

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