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Theater Review: ‘Carol Mulroney’ a Witty, Yet Fluffy, Piece

Play by Belber a Great Night out at Calderwood Theatre

By Rosa Cao

Carol Mulroney

The Huntington Theatre Company

Written by Stephen Belber

Directed by Lisa Peterson

Calderwood Theatre, Boston

Runs through Nov. 20, 2005

The new Calderwood Theatre should feel quite homey to any MIT students who might venture out into wilds of Boston: it feels like a spiffed up lecture hall with a stage where chalkboards would be. But no fear, “Carol Mulroney” is far more entertaining than your run-of-the-mill lecture; even if it does seem to have misplaced its emotional and intellectual core, it’s still got great actors, hilarious one-liners, and a reckless splash of Boondocks-style racial irreverence to top off the concoction.

Belber’s new play opens with a starscape, and an awkwardly real chimney, short, blunt, and square. This, we are told, is a roof, specifically the roof of a home belonging to Carol, who is sad, plagued by nebulous troubles. And while the program, press release, and blurb coyly avoid mention of any fatal denouement, what clearly is at stake here is exactly the clich one would expect of a play set on a roof without a railing.

All five characters in this play are in sales, the girls peddle paints, the men run Mulroney Cosmetics. However much bullshit is spun around the matter (and Hutton Mulroney gives any pomo theorist a run for the money), the play, like its characters, is fundamentally shallow.

Take Carol. The title character is always defined in terms of what she is to others: a daughter, a wife, an obstacle, or an object of fantasy. Who she is, what she does, is delineated in only the sketchiest of terms; she’s sad, she’s worried, but why? How? Apparently she had a bad childhood, again described in the most nebulous of terms. She’s a sweet, non-confrontational girl who continues to have a bad relationship with her admittedly abrasive father, but so what?

Belber said he wanted to write a play about “someone with an inexplicable sadness,” but Carol often comes off as no more than an angsty shell. Her insights are quaint, too wispy even to be written down. Poor Ana Reeder, the talented actress playing Carol, is forced to pontificate on her inner states with such profundities as “I don’t know … I just don’t know …”

Carol’s slightly evil best friend, on the other hand, is an instant attention-grabber; Johanna Day consistently steals the scene as Joan: dramatic, red-headed, and radiating semi-desperate sexuality. Joan specializes in saying the outrageous and the hilarious. Her delivery of “You know, there’s a limit to the number of organic carrots one woman can make love to,” has to be seen to be believed.

Lesley (Tim Ransom) makes a vague, vapid, bad husband to Carol; he’s more or less oblivious, slightly obsessive, and true blue new age loony. He wants to “re-essentialize” his life of working for Carol’s dad Hutton by growing potatoes and bees on Carol’s beloved roof. Unfortunately, the conversations about this are as boring as they sound.

The father, the boss, every overconfident overbearing authority figure rolled up into one, Hutton Mulroney is played with boorish and elaborate ease by Larry Pine. He’s a hardcore pragmatist in the unsubtle American tradition of John Dewey: if we think it’s true, it’s true. If it makes things better for it to be true, we’ll believe it’s true. Utility trumps ontology. From the beginning, we see him urging people to do things, to “just say yes;” he honestly seems to believe that saying makes it so. He wields the malleability of perception by sheer force of personality, and with the complicity of those around him, creates his own reality. But in the end, he is refuted as easily as Samuel Johnson is said to have refuted Bishop Berkeley: by kicking a rock, by a body falling, “thus do I refute you.”

Halfway through the play, enter Ken (Reuben Jackson) into Carol’s stalled life. Unfortunately, he seems have been watching too much Disney, holding out his hand, he says “Do you trust me?” before showing her the edge of the roof, “I just want to show you how to fly.” Aladdin, anyone? He suggests Turkey, as a toast to Hutton, as a destination with Carol. Carol takes it to heart, but not the way he intends: whirling like a dervish herself, she spins off-center, and falls.

The stars in the background change colors and shape: they start out clean and white and pure. We get colors when Ken, hope, and new dreams enter the scene; they turn into falling trails when the intimations start heading off the roof. And a Milky Way in faint white haze appears when redemption and forgiveness, a solution, seem to be on the way.

What happens when you put a tortured girl together with an opportunity for self-destruction? It should be an opportunity for depth, drama, hell, maybe even some examination of the human condition, but alas – Carol is no Antigone, she believes not in spectacle or sacrifice, nor even any principles; she removes herself gently and leaves everyone else still confused on the roof, as the funeral fades to stars.