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Review - Wings: Flight Recovery

Perhaps not content with merely being the best comic actress on the New York stage, Jan Maxwell follows her hilarious turns in last season's revivals of The Royal Family and Lend Me A Tenor by refreshing her dramatic chops a with a riveting, edge of your seat performance in John Doyle's senses-tingling production of Arthur Kopit's 1978 drama, Wings.

Just a bit over an hour long, Wings is light on character but heavy on emotion, beginning with the moment that Emily Stilson, a former aerial daredevil who would thrill crowds by walking on airplane Wings, suddenly suffers a stroke. Doyle's designers Scott Pask (set), Peter Nigrini (projections), Jane Cox (lights) and Bray Poor (sound) plunge her into a nightmarishly abstract collage of sight and sound, where the reality of medical personnel rushing to save her quickly flashes into disembodied voices speaking gibberish and back again to real life.

Through internal speeches, Maxwell, despite sitting in a chair for most of the play, responds with the confused and crazed ferocity of a wild animal suddenly caged, as Emily lashes out anger and fear that cannot be communicated by her still and silent body. Later, her subtle expressions communicate the embarrassment and suspicion she feels as two calm-voiced doctors (Adam Heller and Michael Warner) place common items in front of her and ask questions like, "Which of these do you use to brush your teeth," as part of her believes she survived a plane crash behind enemy lines and in now in a prison camp.

Eventually she's able to converse with a sympathetic therapist, Amy (January LaVoy), though she doesn't realize that her mind often can't distinguish between real words and nonsense syllables. It's not until she sees the struggle of a fellow stroke victim (Teagle Bougere) in a group therapy session that the prideful Emily begins to realize how she must appear to the world.

Kopit wrote a play that simply demands no less than an exceptionally detailed performance and Maxwell's masterful maneuvering through Emily's numerous and quickly-changing emotions is completely captivating from start to finish. Like her character's mid-air strolls, her performance is a courageous feat; hitting emotional extremes with frightful realism. She must be seen.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Jan Maxwell; Bottom: Michael Warner, Jan Maxwell and Adam Heller.

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"The arts have always been an important ingredient to the health of a nation."
-- James Earl Jones

The grosses are out for the week ending 10/24/2010 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: BRIEF ENCOUNTER (11.9%), LOMBARDI (11.2%), DRIVING MISS DAISY (5.7%), LA CAGE AUX FOLLES (4.3%), THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS (3.2%), THE PITMEN PAINTERS (2.7%), IN THE HEIGHTS (2.6%), WEST SIDE STORY (1.7%), NEXT TO NORMAL (1.5%), AMERICAN IDIOT (1.0%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (0.5%), MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION (0.4%),

Down for the week was: A LIFE IN THE THEATRE (-19.1%), MAMMA MIA! (-9.6%), BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON (-8.4%), LA BETE (-6.9%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-6.6%), MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET (-6.5%), A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (-6.3%), CHICAGO (-5.0%), TIME STANDS STILL (-4.6%), PROMISES, PROMISES (-4.3%), MARY POPPINS (-2.9%), JERSEY BOYS (-1.2%), MEMPHIS (-0.8%), THE ADDAMS FAMILY (-0.7%), WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN (-0.6%), ROCK OF AGES (-0.3%), FELA! (-0.2%), WICKED (-0.1%),

Abigail Grotke... a real-life person named Abigail Grotke... has been collecting vintage books on relationship advice for 25 years, amassing over a thousand volumes published from 1822 to 1978, with titles such as The Unfair Sex, She Cooks to Conquer, How to Get a Teen-Age Boy and What To Do With Him When You Get Him and A Virtuous Woman: Sex Life in Relation to the Christian Life. In her archival website, Miss Abigail's Time Warp Advice, questions like, "Is a man abnormal if he likes art and dislikes sports," are answered by quoting the wisdom of experts like Fred Brown and Rudolf T. Kempton, authors of 1950's Sex Questions and Answers: A Guide to Happy Marriage ("Every normal man has a bit of woman in him and every woman contains some of the male in her personality.").

But while her site provides an amusing look at the social mores of past generations (or at least the mores that were considered acceptable for print), the Off-Broadway show it inspires, named after her compilation book, Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating, & Marriage, lacks the cleverness of its source, settling for being cute when there's the potential to be so much more.

Playwrights Sarah Saltzberg and Ken Davenport (who also produces and directs) offer a promising initial setup. The theatre audience is attending a seminar on improving their love lives hosted by Miss Abigail herself. As played by Eve Plumb, styled in a knock-off version of smart and corporate by Abbi Stern, Miss Abigail has an appropriately "rehearsed" quality to her presentation, making the character's cheeriness and positive attitude realistically stilted. But while Grotke explains on her site that her interest in these books began in college when she came across The Art of Dating in a thrift store - sparking her passion for retro pop culture - the Miss Abigail of the play confides that these books helped her through an awkward adolescence and that she firmly believes that today's divorce rate wouldn't be so high if people followed the advice given in the days when people truly committed to their vows and, "Fidelity was more than an investment firm."

And that's when the play refuses to acknowledge the big pink elephant it just let into the room. These books all come from a time when limited career opportunities and a shameful view of divorce led women to marry early and keep themselves locked into unhappy marriages no matter what. By ignoring that dark historical fact, the 90-minute evening settles into being a blandly-humored affair that tries to get as much mileage as possible out of audience participation.

We get a lesson in the proper way to kiss (and of course are encouraged to practice with the person sitting next to us), the best non-threatening technique for letting the attractive person you spot in a café know that the seat next to you is empty (audience members are brought on stage for that one) and, in the game "Love, Lust or Stalking," we call out which category best describes certain behaviors. Before the show even begins we get pink cards to write down our own personal relationship questions, which are answered later in the evening. I'm assuming that questions relating to Ms. Plumb's television career are sent straight to the shredder as my inquiry, "Which are the best women to date; youngest sisters, middle sisters or eldest sisters?" wasn't selected.

There's a bit of a running gag involving Miss Abigail's strapping young assistant, Paco (a very engaging Manuel Herrara) who has trouble expressing the crush he has on his boss, a scenario no-doubt devised to have women in the audience anticipating the eventual final clinch. Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating, & Marriage is certainly presented as a "girls' night out" kind of show, best enjoyed as part of an evening that involves plenty of cocktails. But even as mindless fun, the show doesn't work nearly as well as pouring out some drinks and checking out Abigail Grotke's web site.

Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Eve Plumb; Bottom: Manuel Herrara and Eve Plumb.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.


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