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Cheers for Cherries



It's hard to say if life is imitating art or vice versa. But a play about an amiable group of Newcomb grads, written by an amiable group of Uptown ladies, suggests, at the very least, a porous barrier between the two realms.

Joyce Pulitzer, Lynne Goldman, Marcy Nathan and Harriet Nelson won the Big Easy "Best New Work in Theater" Award for the year 2000 with their play Cherries Jubilee. And they recently have brought it back, in a new, improved version, for a run at Southern Rep. Once again, the play is adroitly directed by Buzz Podewell and once again the cast is a strong ensemble, with each actress creating a distinct and distinctive personality.

Cherries Jubilee is a sensitive, entertaining study of friendship and the changing roles of women in the second half of the last century. The writing is skillful, a tapestry in which we are quickly brought up to speed, as the decades gallop forward, on the current status of each of the protagonists. The script benefits from a lively sense of humor, with a bumper crop of laugh lines that actually get laughs. And there is a bittersweet moment for each character, when they are forced to confront some sadness or conflict, albeit within a comforting circle of lifelong friends.

With its penchant for one-liners and its breezy style, Cherries Jubilee moves along like a good TV sitcom. When it hunkers down on its more serious concerns, it resembles a good TV mini-series. Of course, comparison with television in a theater column seems automatically to imply scorn. I don't know why this should be. Nothing could be further from my mind. I think Cherries Jubilee is a remarkable achievement and certainly worthy of winning an award.

In an odd way, there is something in the very skillfulness of the presentation that makes one think of television. I remember, a few years ago, watching the first episode of a mini-series about the Holocaust. In a short space of time, the viewer had come to recognize the cast of characters. There was the bad German (the true Nazi), the innocently bad German (the idealistic Nazi dupe), the good German (the anti-Nazi), the deluded Jew (thought his service in WWI counted), the aware Jew (wanted to flee), the heroic Jew (would join the underground), etc.

Cherries Jubilee has a similarly schematic feeling. The characters and their dilemmas are real and valid, but slightly generic. They seem to represent types of development, rather than live and breathe with a paradoxical, unpredictable wholeness of being. So we have the New York intellectual, who begins as a JFK supporter, becomes a pot-smoking alternative journalist and ends up a psychiatrist and author. We have the hard-drinking, cynical Southern belle who marries a rich society heel, sobers up and finally becomes a fitness freak/realtor. We have the over-mothered, overweight Jewish girl who becomes the first woman in her family to run the family business. And we have an artistic homosexual, who is belatedly forced to come out of the closet and accept herself. The schema is beyond criticism. The only problem is that one senses it as a schema.

The skillfulness of the dialogue at times runs a similar risk. At the beginning of one scene, for example, the New York intellectual, who was last seen a decade earlier when she was a journalist, helps carry in another woman's huge pile of luggage.

"Hey, what am I, a bell hop or a psychiatrist?" she quips -- a line that is appropriate, funny and, of course, a telegraphic update. Once again, the only problem is, no matter how skillfully these lines are dropped into the scene, one can't help but become aware of the accumulation of updates.

These are stringent criticisms, however, that could not even be raised if the play were not of an admirably high quality to begin with. Ultimately what matters is that Cherries Jubilee works. It's an enjoyable evening of theater.

Memorable performances are turned in by Sandi Williams (the gay pianist), Gia Rabito (the tipsy belle), Tari Hohn Lagasse (the salty Texan), Aimée Hayes (the Yankee intellectual), and Heidi Junius (the Jewish girl). And there are comic moments involving the whole group -- like the stoned striptease after smoking their first joint of marijuana -- that replay in one's mind long after the house lights come up. Ann Casey does a crowd-pleasing silent turn as Lois, the housekeeper. Henry Heymann's set is apt and elegant, as are Janet Harreld's costumes.

There is a buzz about that Joyce Pulitzer (who was the driving force in the writing collaboration) is working on another script. Here's hoping we get to see it soon.

Cherries Jubilee succeeds in part on the strength of its ensemble, clockwise from top: Aime Hayes, Tari Hohn Lagasse, Gia Rabito, Lynn Toal and Sandi Williams.
  • Cherries Jubilee succeeds in part on the strength of its ensemble, clockwise from top: Aime Hayes, Tari Hohn Lagasse, Gia Rabito, Lynn Toal and Sandi Williams.

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