Review - 10 Things to Do Before I Die & Accent on Youth

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"Oh, I get it. That one's Blanche and that one's Stella."

"No, wait that one's Blanche and that one's... Maggie The cat?

"Hold on... I think they're both Blanche."

These are some of the random thoughts that whizzed through my head while trying to see through the clutter of Zakiyyah Alexander's 10 Things to Do Before I Die, a game effort but a frustratingly unfocused piece receiving a well-acted premiere production via Second Stage Theatre Uptown.

Vida (Natalie Venetia Belcon) is a tough-loving New York City public high school teacher leading her students through an analysis of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire in preparation for a field trip to see the play on Broadway. She hasn't spoken to her sister Nina (Tracie Thoms) since the latter's best-selling first book - a rehashing of how their absent mother and alcoholic father contributed to her numerous unsuccessful relationships with men - described the former as one who slept with numerous lovers in search of a father figure. When a large delivery of their recently deceased dad's possessions are shipped to Nina's apartment, the two of them are forced to, you might say, sort through their messy past together.

But while the playwright thankfully avoids some of the obvious "heartwarming" moments such a setup might inspire, she never allows the contents of the numerous brown boxes - including their father's personal list of "10 things to do before I die" - to have any significant impact. Sitting through scenes depicting unhealthy relationships with men, nightmarish hallucinations, pill addiction and the occasional panic attack (the New York equivalent of having The Vapors?) it becomes clear by the second act that this duo character study reveals little of interest about its subjects.

Which is such a shame because the two leading ladies are both putting in some very good work. Belcon makes Vida lovingly sympathetic woman with a firm grip on her defensive shield; just busting for a chance to allow herself to let loose. Thoms takes the classic cliché of the young, hip and neurotic New York creative type and spins her into a wisecracking whirlwind of self-doubt and commitment-phobia.

Perhaps it's because the Uptown series, meant to give early-career support to emerging playwrights, is budgeted for a limited rehearsal period and modest production values, that director Jackson Gay's staging provides just the simple meat-and-potatoes basics required for the piece. In good supporting turns, Francois Battiste (as Nina's ex-party boy turned clean-cut corporate boyfriend) and Dion Graham (as the married man Vida has been sleeping with) manage to keep their parts from appearing too much like underwritten stereotypes, but the guy who really makes an impression is Kyle Betram; very touching as a student whose interest in Tennessee Williams has at least a little to do with his crush on Vida.

Graham and Betram share the unfortunate task of playing out a ridiculously unrealistic scene where Vida angrily leaves the two of them alone in her own apartment ("When I'm back both of you are gone.") leaving the guys to fight over her by showing off their ability to quote Williams and Shakespeare. Like so much of the play, there's the hint of a good idea but the execution leaves more to be desired.

Photo by Joan Marcus: Tracie Thoms and Francois Battiste

In a Broadway season that has seen true love blossom from a farting contest and a schoolgirl with a crush offer to show the object of her affection her "hoo-hoo," how refreshing it is to have a revival of Samson Raphaelson's light 1934 comedy, Accent On Youth, to bring a little adult romantic charm to the street. While comparisons to that Noel Coward masterpiece playing a few blocks downtown are inevitable, and the decades-old characters are comfortable clichés to modern audiences, director Daniel Sullivan's neat little drawing room production is finely polished and performed by a company that accents the play's clever dialogue.

David Hyde Pierce, always excellent at this sort of sweetly droll humor, plays a successful 51-year-old author of comedies ("No children but 19 plays!"), whose colleagues are concerned that his newest piece - a drama about a man in his 60s winning the heart of a woman in her 20s - would be seen as distasteful by audiences. But when he makes a slight plot alteration based on a May/December situation that has cropped up in his own life, the play becomes a smash and its elderly leading man (Byron Jennings, delightfully distinguished as ever) becomes a matinee idol. But the success of the play winds up having an adverse effect on the playwright's love life with his younger secretary turned leading lady. (Mary Catherine Garrison is quite adorable as his mousey, efficient assistant who evolves into a believably unnatural imitation of Broadway elegance.)

Admirable contributors to the shenanigans include Charles Kimbrough as a foxy gentleman's gentleman who is quite adept at Indian wrestling, David Furr as an actor impeccable at playing society love interests, Rosie Benton as a leading lady leading the ever-so-madcap life and Lisa Banes as a seasoned actress more concerned with winning the audience's sympathy than serving the story.

While placing a single intermission after the first of the play's three acts lopsides the evening a bit, the abundance of snappy dialogue ("You write your women awfully well. Funny that you should be so stupid about them in life.") flows smoothly, with Jane Greenwood's comfortably stylish costumes and John Lee Beatty's unit set (the playwright's study lined with wood panels and neatly organized bookshelves) beautifully adding to the casual elegance of the period.

Now, if they could just do something about that bit of business where Pierce shakes his fanny at the audience.

Photo of David Hyde Pierce and Mary Catherine Garrison by Joan Marcus

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From This Author Kristin Salaky