’84, Charing Cross Road’ at Off the Quill

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In James Roose-Evan’s stage adaptation of Helene Hanff’s classic memoir, 84, Charing Cross Road, Off The Quill tackles something quite different from their usual M.O. A self-labeled “collaborative” and “experimental” troupe, OTQ was introduced last year at Capital Fringe with Violent Delights, “A Shakespearian brawl-esque sideshow.” Violent Delights, described by DCMTA’s J.R. Russ as an, “experimental… circus of violence,” complete with dance exhibitions and displays of intense choreographed combat, is quite different than 84; which is, save for some excellent dance numbers added in by choreographer Kathleen Moors, a straight play. Off the Quill doesn’t disappoint, however, and shows it can excel not just in movement based productions, but ones rich with text and character.

84, a script reminiscent in many ways of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters (or, perhaps, Love Letters, on Broadway almost a decade later,would remind one of 84?), consists entirely of a dramatized correspondence. The letters flow back and forth between Helene Hanff (Amy Davis), a frustrated New York writer and bibliophile who can’t find what she’s looking for state-side, Frank Doel (Michael J. Dombroski, and pronounced similar to the French “Noel”) a book-keeper at London’s Marx and Co. rare and used book shop, as well as various associates at the shop. Off the Quill, has added movement and realism to the wordy script, letting the audience feel for Helene and Frank until 1969 -when their correspondence abruptly ends.

There are several notable feats in 84, including the outstanding direction provided by Elise Berg. Berg has an understanding for the nuance of 84, and focuses mainly on moments not provided in the script. Her outstanding vision for the show, consistently providing for these moments that are not written in, makes 84 exceptional.

One moment in particular that adds incredible life to the production is when Helene is trying to find a passage left out of a book she has purchased from Marx and Co. She describes it as something akin to a whirlwind, so Ms. Berg and Choreographer Kathleen Moors, along with the show’s ensemble, create controlled chaos, adding comedy and fervor to a moment which certainly could go by like any other.

Amy Davis, who plays Helene Hanff, is a treasure to watch. A thriving passion for literature comes through in Hanff’s character, as well as a wonderful, dry, sarcasm that is often coupled with a vivacious energy that leaves one’s eyes glued to Ms. Davis throughout.

Not to be outdone by Davis, though, is Michael J. Dombroski, who plays Doel. He gives Frank a stunningly believable arc, perfectly and appropriately detached at the plays beginning, while wonderfully warm at 84’s end. Dombroski charms throughout: his accent impeccable. His chemistry with Davis blooms, not-too-quickly, leaving the two the most attached at the most painful point.

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I do question some of the technical choices. The props and costumes by Elise Berg, Katie Wanschura, and Caitlin Williams are perfectly period, and make the bookshop, along with Helene’s various NYC dwellings, tangible, and believable. Patrick Mullen’s set design, complete with wood textured floor-mats to accommodate movement, is effective in creating Helene and Frank’s connected, but all-too-separate worlds. The lighting design, also by Mr. Mullen, is filled with perfectly chosen color, is simple and adds a lovely warmth to the stage. Unfortunately, the projection design is extremely distracting, and often, unnecessary. It drains the emotion from the powerful final scene. It also frequently plays for cheap visual jokes coinciding with the character’s lines, which devalues the two excellent performances and wonderful  movement of its two superb lead actors.

84, Charing Cross Road only runs for one more weekend, so make your plans to head to Greenbelt now. You won’t want to miss this unique and intensely genuine piece of theatre that Off the Quill has created.

Running Time: Two hours and ten minutes, and one intermission.

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84, Charing Cross Road plays through June 28, 2014 at  Off The Quill performing at the Greenbelt Arts Center-123 Centerway, in Greenbelt, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 441-8770 x2 and leave a reservation, or purchase them at the door, or online.