Posted by: strugglesome | December 20, 2010

Please, Call Me Reese: New City Stage Company’s Miss Witherspoon

You may not believe in reincarnation, but reincarnation believes in YOU. Or at least that’s what semi-absurdist playwright Christopher Durang would have us believe in his one act rumination on life, death, heaven and Rex Harrison, Miss Witherspoon, the first production of New City Stage Company‘s 2010-2011 season, directed by Ryder Thornton. Miss Witherspoon is actually the nickname given to Veronica, a blunt and gloriously WASPy curmodgen of a woman who has taken her own life and now finds herself stuck in a less-then-satisfying afterlife (or netherworld, or bardo, or whatever else you’d care to call the waiting room of reincarnation). But it’s a sad fact that while Durang wants us to associate the term “Miss Witherspoon” with one of the dreary tweedy busybodies in Agatha Christie mysteries, our pop-culture saturated mentalities make it difficult to not think of the perky film star who gave us Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama. Ah, if only the run of this show hadn’t corresponded with the premier of How Do You Know! Oh, well, one can’t have everything, now can one?

In fact, Veronica herself would prefer to have nothing at all, if only the pesky universe would cease to interfere. Played extremely strongly by Julie Czarnecki,  Veronica is at once prickly, abrasive and deeply endearing, managing to be sympathetic and devious at the same time. Plagued by the deliciously annoying Maryama (Indika Senanayake), her spiritual guide who, due to Veronica’s own unconscious needs, is decked out in a flaming magenta Sari like a Bollywood heroine (costumes by Amy Chmielewski), Veronica is forcibly reincarnated on multiple occasions, despite her protests that she really just wants the bliss of unconsciousness. Since she can’t stop the reincarnating wheels from turning (a rather weak gobo effect in an otherwise strong lighting design by Matt Sharp), Veronica decides on self-sabotage as an alternative. This leads her through a series of adventures, including a hilarious scene with a baby Veronica luring the family dog into attacking her, and a less hilarious scene with Veronica as the abused and overweight daughter of Precious-style parents. Returning time and again to the Bardo (which the all-knowing Wikipedia defines as the Tibetan word for intermediate or liminal space), which this production has as a dreamy blue space with overlapping flats creating a waved effect that reduces the visible playing space to a trim triangle and hides the many elements that roll on and off the stage in a clever semi-divine manner (set design by S. Cory Palmer), Veronica refuses to live in a world when Skylab and terrorism and the sheer irrationality of the human condition continue to exist, stating “I don’t like life. I don’t trust it”.  However, by the end of the piece our brusque little black cloud realizes that “You don’t get ahead with suicide”, and that her inactions are as damaging to the universe as negative actions would be, and she voluntarily lets herself return to earth, to start the whole painful process of living all over again.

Of course, it takes some urging from Maryama, with help from Gandulf (Russ Widdall) and Jesus (Wendy Staton) before Veronica is ready to take the plunge. Staton and Widdall also play a variety of other characters, along with Ginger Dayle. Staton is by far the strongest of the three supporting actors, especially when she is portraying a soulful and sassy Jesus in a blindingly bright dress-suit and hat. Widdall shines most in his creepier roles, a heroine addicted father or a sleazy British drug-dealer, and as a result is rather hard to take seriously when playing someone with a more positive personality. Dayle, however, is the blandest of the three actors, though her turn as a trashy druggie teen-mom does draw a few laughs, proving that nothing is immune to the Jersey Shore affect.

But what starts out as an intriguing concept becomes both preachy and not full dissected in this piece. Durang, whose love of pointed commentary and goofy satire is matched only by the “Scary Movie” franchise or Marshall Pailet’s hit musical Jurassic Parq , seems more interested in hitting groan-inducing tongue and cheek jokes then exploring the meat underneath this premise. The concept of reincarnation, our other lives and other selves and ascending the ladder of human experience until nirvana is reached and peace has been earned is an interesting one, and so is the idea of someone trying to consciously defeat that process through repeated suicides. But these are themes and concepts that have been more effectively and interestingly addressed in the works of other contemporary playwrights; Sarah Ruhl‘s Eurydice being a prime example. Part of the problem is that this is an extremely talky play, and yet it is one in which the strategies are never varied. Repetition in theater is like repetition in music, and there is nothing more boring then hearing a repeated note played the same way every time. And while in this particular production leads Czarnecki and Senanayake both are talented enough to keep the energy and pace of the play moving well, the issues of the play itself are still evident, the narrative becoming splintered, the ending rather pat. And while this show is a fun one, it’s often a rather superficial examination of some of life’s deepest questions, and sometimes that duality grates rather then enlightens.

New City Stage Company’s Miss Witherspoon runs from now until January 9th at the Adrienne Theater. If you want to spend 90 minutes with a cheerfully deranged life coach and a WASPy matron who wears the hell out of tweed, pick up tickets here.



  1. What no mention of the excellent work by the unexplained fence on stage right?

  2. I know, the extraneous fence was a buzz kill. It was like that August Wilson play….The Piano Lesson! Wah wah.

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