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Fugue: Who are you again?

Fugue, a play by Lee Thuna, makes its off-Broadway debut at The Cherry Lane Theatre March 21st.  The title refers to the fugue state of amnesia, in which a traumatic event is the cause of the disorder, often causing the sufferer to literally run from problems in order to forget them.

A woman (Deirdre O'Connell) is found wandering the subways in Chicago.  She's taken to a hospital, where she's named "Mary Smith" until they can figure out who she is.  Thus begins the play-long search for her identity, helped by Dr. Danny Lucchesi (Rick Stear).  As she remembers her past in kaleidoscopic fragments, she relives scenes from her life, having conversations with her mother, her high school boyfriend, her teenage daughter, and a strange woman named "Crew".  All these present the mystery of identity at the heart of the play and Dr. Lucchesi and the audience are spellbound by the unfolding revelations of Mary's story. 

Deirdre O'Connell gives an absolutely flawless performance.  Every moment is true, focused, and heartbreakingly real, whether she's joking with her doctor about the things she can't remember, or reliving a painful or beautiful memory from her past- she is all ages, she is superbly in every single moment.

She is ably assisted by the supporting cast.  Charlotte Booker is hilarious as Zelda, a high school friend of Mary's.  Catherine Wolf is grand and wonderful as Mary's mother, wringing laughs and a touching simplicity from the role.  Ari Butler (who would be at home playing any Neil Simon juvenile) is full of perfectly adorable awkwardness as Noel, Mary's high school boyfriend.  Lily Corvo is solid as Tammy, Mary's daughter, convincingly playing her from age 8 to 18.  And Danielle Skraastad is a powerful presence as the enigmatic Liz "Crew" Kruger.

And then there's Danny.  Dr. Lucchesi.  Danny has his own issues that too-neatly dovetail with Mary's.  His friend Dr. Oleander (the underused Liam Craig) has brought him on to Mary's case to bring him out of himself after a mysterious incident that happened when Danny got too friendly with an ex-patient.  And this is where the play gets annoying.  As riveting as Mary's story is, Danny's counter-story is too cliché; a guy who was a loose-cannon genius, but has lost his faith in his work in the past because of some horrible thing, but gets brought back for a special case that ends up redeeming him?  Yeah, it's been done.  Perhaps it was fresh in 1986, when the play was the winner of the American Theatre Critics Award for Best Play in Regional Theatre.  The play does not otherwise seem dated, although some story elements might be less of a shock to today's audiences compared to 21 years ago (I knew who "Crew" was as soon as she stepped onstage).

Rick Stear does an excellent job at embodying the cliché of the script, all unshavenness and black t-shirts and attractive moody irreverence, and his chemistry with O'Connell is undeniable.  It's not his fault that when the story shifts occasionally to him and his trite pain, the life and reality goes out of the script, and we're suddenly in a bad buddy-cop film, except with buddy-doctors this time.

Judith Ivey's direction is beautiful; she wrings the depth out of these characters, and never allows the potentially confusing flashback scenes to become muddied.  She and the wonderful actors set this rough jewel of a script in a setting that's almost too good; lifting it up to the light, one can see the flaws in the stone.

The scenic design by Neil Patel is gorgeous and wonderfully simple, allowing for a multitude of memory scene shifts, though the stairway frequently wobbled when people used it, making me worry for the actors' safety, throwing me out of the play.

The script is clichéd and uneven, but when it's good, and it is frequently good, it's very very good indeed.  Deirdre O'Connell's stunning performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Tickets for Fugue are $45 and $50.

Fugue plays Tuesday at 7pm,

Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm,

with matinees Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm.

Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St.

Tickets can be purchased by calling Telecharge (212) 239-6200 or going to www.Telecharge.com


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