Portrait and a Dream
nytheatre.com review by Stephen Kaliski
August 15, 2011
Portrait and a Dream, a pleasantly idiosyncratic relationship drama from playwright Jacob Marx Rice, offers enough fresh observations about the savage wounds of mainstream love to earn itself a distinct place at this year’s FringeNYC. The content of the play is neither surprising nor revolutionary. Rice serves in heaps the sort of cutesy middle-class angst that has defined the entire movement of Mumblecore cinema. Still, with terrific performances all around and an inventive mosaic form, the play makes for a worthwhile entry into a familiar canon.
Described by director Katie Lupica as an “invitation into the tumultuous yet unadorned interior of one young man’s mind,” Portrait and a Dream follows self-absorbed nerd/narcissist Nick (Frank Winters, in magnificently neurotic form) as he somehow stumbles upon the perfect Annie (Kate Dearing). Their relationship reaches a level of unexpected and undeserved bliss, but Nick eventually screws up this happy accident by falling for Annie’s friend Paige (Chelsea Cipolla). Rice observes Nick’s unraveling in a gently non-linear structure, switching among the meet-cute, the settling in, the tumult, and the end-of-the-world aftermath.
For all the opportunities it presents, this parallel to hip Mumblecore filmmaking comes with its own inherent obstacles. Particularly in the first half of the play, Rice writes with cinematic impatience, bailing out of scenes before they’ve barely begun. While it’s easy to imagine this style thriving on the silver screen at Landmark Sunshine, it poses a nearly impossible task for a theatrical staging.
To address this problem of chronically halted momentum, Lupica employs a couple of nicely dressed female “ensemble members” as floating stagehands. At each transition, these young women take it upon themselves to rearrange all of the IKEA furniture on stage and strike an observant pose when finished. Shuffling around like a cross between Wimbledon ball girls and the twins from The Shining, these ensemble members make a 90-minute play without an intermission instead feel like a play with 90 intermissions.
Lupica surely feels as if this frequent furniture rearrangement underscores the fractured nature of Nick’s experience, but as with all directorial choices gone awry, it simply feels intrusive and confusing. Perhaps with a more specific design and more precise execution, these transitions could create an interesting physical language for the show, but within the minimal confines of FringeNYC, the audience is left wondering why the stage is in a constant, chaotic scramble.
Luckily, Rice’s writing eventually settles down, and despite all the setbacks of her transitions, Lupica elicits truly lovely work from her three actors. As the play’s spine, Winters delivers a nuanced and endearing performance that offsets Larry David-style neuroses with genuine humanity. When Nick looks back on his mistakes and his ill-advised means of addressing them, actor and writer are perfectly in sync, revealing a moving vulnerability so longed for in the first half of the play. With impeccable comic timing and irresistible spunkiness, Dearing is a fantastic counterpart to Winters. The two have a chemistry that is at once adorable and dangerous. Cipolla lends a strong third voice as Paige, the bookish foil to the effervescent Annie.
All in all, Portrait and a Dream is a solid example of how illuminating a FringeNYC experience can be, both for participant and observer. It showcases excellent actors, a talented writer, and a brave director. Where it fails, it’s at least bold, and where it succeeds, it makes us eager to watch these artists grow.