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Review - Abbie & The Misanthrope

Actors who bear a substantial resemblance to a legendary celebrity or historical figure are often inspired to turn that stroke of luck into a one-person show. If Bern Cohen ever had any doubts about his resemblance to political activist Abbie Hoffman, they were certainly dissolved one evening in the 1970s when Ohio police arrested him and put him through a brutal interrogation under the assumption that he was the famous "Clown Prince of the Revolution" who co-founded the Youth International Party (the Yippies), was a member of the "Chicago Eight" who were charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot after disruptive demonstrations outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention and wrote a New York Times bestseller, even though it was titled Steal This Book.

Unfortunately, the fascinating story of Cohen's arrest isn't part of Abbie, the one-man play it helped inspire; not unless you ask him about it during the Q&A that follows each performance of his current run at the West End Theater. Directed by Thomas Caruso, Abbie, is set in 1987 (two years before his suicide) as the subject's appearance is part of a sociology lecture series. The text is based on Hoffman's own words with Cohen providing enough connective tissue to shape it into a play.

Looking back on his life, Cohen's portrayal of Hoffman is warm and self-effacing, resembling a character out of Shalom Aleichem more than an anti-establishment social activist when he makes observations like, "Me and the birth control pill were the most celebrated things ever to come out of Worcester. At one time, most folks up there wished the pill would come first."

Though photo slides accompany his talk, this middle-aged man's look back at his youth never gives us a clear view of what he was like at the peak of his career. Perhaps a larger-budgeted production with film clips, or even another actor playing a younger Hoffman, might increase the play's effectiveness, but what is offered now, though certainly informative and interesting, lacks details. Little is made of the famous antics that took place during the Chicago Eight's trial or the man's diagnosis with bi-polar disorder.

That's not to say that this premiere production of the piece doesn't show potential. Cohen conveys a true affection and warmth for subject. Now we just need to see more of Hoffman's fire.

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The last major production of Moliere's The Misanthrope to hit town featured a scene where the title character plopped himself onto a table full of messy lunchtime goodies, slathering himself with chocolate sauce, squeezing ketchup down his pants, ramming a watermelon half on his head and fashioning himself a toupee made from spaghetti. Nearly anything director Joseph Hanreddy and the Pearl Theatre Company would offer instead would seem a blessing by comparison.

Indeed, their presentation of Richard Wilbur's English verse translation leans far more on the traditional side, with designer Harry Feiner's setting of upstage doors and a floor realized with simple grace and Sam Fleming's costumes and Gerard Kelly's wigs providing elegance and humor. And if the proceedings seem a bit stilted at first, the sharp humor of Moliere's satire of communication among polite society bursts through as the comedic sparks fly throughout the second act

As the title character, Alceste, Sean McNall is crisply erudite as he mourns the loss of brutal honesty in the class he is unavoidable a part of, succumbed to the false kindness his peers use to get along in polite society when they're not secretly gossiping about one another. He sneers with exasperation when the would-be poet, Oronte (a likeably oblivious Kern McFadden) asks for an honest critique of his sorry work.

What sets the play in motion is that Alceste is madly in love with a woman who represents all he despises; the 20-year-old widow, Celimene, a lady who relishes the advantages her beauty and independence allow her as she receives suitors and partakes in leisurely endeavors. Janie Brookshire plays the role with a wry sense of self-satisfaction and though their early scenes can use a jump-start of tension and heat, eventually his maddening frustration matches perfectly with her detached amusement through to their relationship's resolution.

Though the supporting performances, while certainly capable, don't all seem completely organic with the rhythms of the text and there is little consistency as to whether the rhymes should be played up, disregarded or somewhere in between, Patrick Halley and Matthew Amendt do deliver fine supporting turns as Celimene's foppish suitors. And given the strength of the production's second act, it wouldn't surprise me if by the time these words are read the first half has risen to the same level.

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From This Author Ben Peltz