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Review: OFF PEAK Finds Hudson Stage in Peak Form

Non-Strangers on a Train Revisit the Past

Review: OFF PEAK Finds Hudson Stage in Peak Form
Hudson Stage producers Olivia Sklar (l) and Denise Bessette.

Creators of musical theatre are ever mindful of the show business chestnut that if their work isn't memorably tuneful, audiences can't be expected to go home "humming the scenery."

Maybe not, but it doesn't mean we can't sing the praises of exceptional set design.

When I headed to opening night of new stage play Off Peak, I knew that the two characters are commuters. I was not at all prepared, however, for what I saw upon entering Whippoorwill Hall Theater in Armonk, where this crowd-pleasing Hudson Stage Company production runs through May 7 (For ticket information > Sitting there on stage was a stunningly replicated cut-away section a Metro North train car, revealing three rows of seats and an exit door.

I shouldn't have been so surprised. One of the throughlines in my previous reviews of this theater company's meticulously mounted productions is the signature eye candy that greets audiences settling into their seats. I appreciate the visual more than usual because it's the end of the line for Hudson Stage.

After 23 years and 37 productions, Hudson Stage co-founders and producers Denise Bessette and Olivia Sklar have decided it's time they gave themselves some well-deserved R&R. There is a reading scheduled for June, but Off Peak is the pair's last full production for Hudson Stage.

Predictably, they are exiting the stage in style and true to form. As Olivia Sklar writes in a parting note in the printed program, "Our original mission was to present new plays, so it is fitting that the last two plays we presented were world premieres."

Originality is a trusty trademark of Hudson Stage. Rather than travel the safe lane, dotted with name playwrights and familiar play titles, this theater company made its bones curating fresh, thoughtful material by emerging and less-than-famous artists. Trying to divine what will "make good box office" is the stuff ulcers are made of. Bessette's and Sklar's track record is what legacies are made of. They are show business troupers in the best sense. (Sklar pointed out that putting up even one or two mainstage shows a year consumes 365 days a year. of their time and energy. The quality standard is reflected in Hudson Stage being an Actors' Equity Association house, so the bar is high from the get-go.)

When unknown works are done as well as Hudson Stage has done them, it is to the delight of audiences adventurous enough to seek new works by new writers.

Enter stage right Brenda Withers, author of Off Peak. Her clever piece invites us to eavesdrop, for a fast-moving 80 minutes, on a man and woman who are the only passengers in that realistic train car.

The conceit Withers concocts is that they are ex-lovers, from many moons ago (17 years, to be precise). As if by improbable happenstance, Martin (Kurt Rhoads) is on the same train as Sarita (Nance Williamson) -- the 8:33 local to Poughkeepsie. Except, of course, it's no coincidence.

Playing Google detective, Martin has traced the whereabouts of his former paramour for the self-cleansing purpose of making amends for his former self's boorish behavior. So, while Martin doesn't accidentally find himself encountering Sarita, he is there to find himself, as part of an ongoing rehabilitative process. As well as re-find Sarita, Martin's also there to refund his old flame (in cold cash) - for the wages of anxiety he has cost her. He's tracked her down with an air of desperation, and a whiff of narcissism, to pay penance, literally.

In revealing their relationship history, Withers demonstrates an impressive facility with fluid repartee that keeps the audience locked in, and not infrequently amused by her inclination for throw-away jokiness. This decidedly is more dramedy than either drama or comedy, and it is skillfully diverting.

In the early going, the pair engage in a verbal ping-pong game of silliness to avoid ripping off the scab of the wounds that drove them apart.

One of my favorite lines is when Martin apologizes for interrupting Sarita in mid-sentence, and she says the quiet part out loud: "Don't worry. I'll interrupt you later." That's a sampling of not only Withers' canny insight into human behavior but also her witty knack for theatricalizing it for audience satisfaction.

As the narrative picks up steam, it's evident Withers has a lot to say about many things, including fighting for women's rights in a proudly patriarchal society, second chances, personal responsibility, parental influence, the difference between love and relationships, and peer pressure (Sarita wonders why "everyone wants everyone to be married").

In a couple of places the narrative and strong characterizations get a little sidetracked by the writer's voice suddenly switching into what sounded, to my ear, at least, like a somewhat stilted mode of speechifying (Martin: "The normal I imposed on us ... might still be informing our dynamic.") No matter. Even the few times such fussy word salads are tossed our way, they don't get in the way of our overall enjoyment of a sharply realized entertainment.

The playwright also can be applauded for the all-too-relatable experience she whimsically re-creates of a commuter train's lesser moments - namely, service breakdowns and garbled PA announcements (which, in fairness, are mostly a thing of the past; when I ride the rails nowadays, they are clear as a bell). Conductor's voice is by Doug Ballard (Actors' Equity member).

Withers and director Jess Chayes -- the confident conductor who keeps a firm hand on the play's nicely-chugging engine and physical business -- have the very good fortune of a cast of consummate pros in Nance Williamson and Kurt Rhoads (both Actors' Equity members), who bring Martin and Sarita to vibrant life.

The fact that the actors are a real-life couple who have appeared in 68 plays together doesn't exactly hurt the authenticity of their performances. That's not to shortchange their individual talents, which are wonderfully on display in flawless timing and delivery. They richly deserved the standing ovation the audience gave them on opening night.

Also deserving of credit for the success of this production are lighting designer Paul Vaillancourt, costumer Leslie Bernstein, sound designer Tojo Rasedoara, production stage manager Ann Barkin and production manager John Leyden.

Hudson Stage founders Denise Bessette and Olivia Sklar, having contributed mightily to the enjoyment of countless theatergoeers the past two-plus decades, are sure to find renewed enjoyment spending more time with their families. Not that family hasn't been front and center all along. "The company became a member of our collective families since its inception," says Olivia.

I may be one of the few theater reviewers left in the Hudson Valley -- a dubious distinction of which I am not proud -- but I am one of many theater lovers who have cherished (and will miss) the originality, quality, and professionalism that have been hallmarks of Hudson Stage. Their fitting legacy is the memorable contribution they have made not just to local theater, but to the overall culture of our region.

I hope for Denise and Olivia the same thing they always have strived to give us - only the best - and I hope that our paths cross again soon. In that spirit, let their legion of appreciative admirers leave them for now with the proper way theater people wish each other well ... "Break a leg!"

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