Now Circa Then
nytheatre.com review by Di Jayawickrema
September 23, 2010
Carly Mensch's new dramedy Now Circa Then is a rich, intimate portrait of two young modern-day reenactors hired by the Tenement Museum to portray an 1890 immigrant couple, and the swank, cozy theater of Ars Nova is the perfect venue for it. This is a jaunty comedic romp, enriched by moments of stark honesty, that illustrates how much of who we are is based in where we have been.
I don't usually launch into a review by raving about the stage, but Lauren Helpern's set is a thing of beauty. Together with properties master Jacquelyn D. Marolt, she has created a vital, resplendent space, where every prop lining each nook is a poignant window into the claustrophobic lives of 19th century immigrants and our own history as New Yorkers. In this arena, it's not hard to see how Stephen Plunkett's Gideon and Maureen Sebastian's Margie find their real lives spilling into those of their characters, Julian and Josephine Glockner.
Plunkett and Sebastian are electric here as two lost souls thrown together in a restored Lower East Side tenement apartment. Gideon, as an earnest historical scholar who takes his job very seriously, is deeply annoyed that Margie, a recent transplant who came to New York to escape a life of small-town boredom, only took the gig for cash. Gideon's hilariously stilted portrayal of Julian is a perfect foil for Margie's overly bright, mechanical depiction of a woman she doesn't really understand. The deepening of ditzy, insecure Margie as she learns to inhabit the skin of the poor, marginalized Prussian woman is wonderful to watch. As the play unfolds, Sebastian delivers each fresh iteration of Margie's claim, "I am Josephine," with pitch-perfect significance. Naturally, Gideon and Margie fall in love, and each turn of their relationship affects their reenactments, with all their real issues blithely spilling on stage. From the endearing awkwardness of their first encounter to the gushing adulation in the first bloom of their relationship to the bitterness of its inevitable unraveling—"Why don't you just stab me?" Gideon cries in-character, mid-performance—these two are exquisite. As fine as their comedic timing is, the two performers are just as compelling in their darker moments.
Mensch's script is a layered, clear-eyed work of art and Jason Eagan's direction is very deft. Each shift between the present-day real world and the past reenactment world is signaled by buoyant Prussian music and the actors don't miss a beat as they shift in and out of the two worlds, even as their characters forget the line between the two. This is indie theater at its best. There is not a false note anywhere, and the audience had a blast laughing and sympathizing with the young couple. You will too.