Review: ‘If Only… a Love Story’ at The Cherry Lane Theatre

The Cherry Lane Theatre, in Greenwich Village, is offering a new play by a New York playwright, Thomas Klingenstein, whose earlier works have been seen at the Lark Theatre Lab, the Atlantic Theatre  Studios and the New York Historical Society. Clearly, he’s done his apprenticeship, and now we have his full-length play with an excellent cast. Alas, I can only say that “if only..” he had continued to discover what makes an engrossing play out of whispered and imagined conversations from the past, it might have worked.

The result is what amounts to a two character chat about the past. It involves Ann Astorcott (Melissa Gilbert) and a man called Samuel Johnson (Mark Kenneth Smaltz), in the parlor of the Astorcott apartment in New York in 1901. They have not seen each other in 36 years but neither has forgotten what they once felt for each other all those years ago when Ann met him when she was a hospital nurse. Abraham Lincoln was visiting New York City at the time. Johnson was a well-educated ex-slave and she an established New York socialite, living in a time when any sort of relationship between them was impossible.

Melissa Gilbert and Richmond Hoxie. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

What follows is an 85-minute conversation between the two, expressing their thoughts on what might have been if Lincoln had lived, changing the nation’s course and their lives. There is no plot here, merely an exchange between two people who had feelings for each other, which have remained stored only in memory for 36 years. All that this conversation piece achieves for its two characters is a look at what might have been had they lived in a different time, with an acceptance of what then was their reality.

The author introduces a six-year-old child whom Ann has adopted from the local orphanage, a girl who had been so traumatized by seeing her parents killed by a runaway horse and carriage that she has not uttered a word since the tragedy. It’s Ann’s hope that in time, with enough love and attention, the child’s voice will return. The character, Sophie,  would seem to symbolize the yearning silence between herself and Johnson through the years. The play ends as it began, with Ann reading to Sophie, played by Korinne Tetlow.

The Cherry Lane is a small theatre. Yet Ms. Gilbert’s performance, honest and direct as it is, is so much a miniature that at times I felt I was intruding on a private conversation. In the play’s opening moments, when she is reading to the young girl, she reads four or five pages sotto voce, so that we and the little girl are almost dozing when she finally turns to face her. Later, with Mr. Smaltz who is articulate and audible, she chooses again to underplay. In these moments, she is using a screen technique that leaves us straining for more. I was surprised, because Ms. Gilbert, known to us mostly from her award winning performances as a young actress on “Little House On The Prairie”, has played many major roles on stage and won the Outer Critics Circle and Theatre World Awards for her work in A Shaina Maidel. The staging by Christopher McElroen of this plot-shy play does not help to enliven the writing. For endless minutes, he has placed his two principals in armchairs facing each other so that we see only their profiles, tossing exposition and arguments back and forth as though engaged in a game of shuttlecock or paddle ball. At some point, they exchange chairs and repeat the process. Ultimately, they are directed to move here and there, but they continue to remind us more of chess pieces moving about the board than of two adults inhabiting someone’s parlor.

Melissa Gilbert sits with costar Mark Kenneth Smaltz.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Richmond Hoxie completes the quartet of actors, as Henry Astorcott, Ann’s husband. The role is a brief one, but he inhabits it well, and again manages to dominate because Ms. Gilbert plays so diminutively. William Boles has designed and decorated a fine example of a fashionable Manhattan apartment. and the period costumes by Kimberly Manning further lend authenticity to the proceedings. Well intentioned, but for me, an embryonic idea that never quite developed into a healthily developed play.

If Only… a Love Story plays through September 17, 2017, at Cherry Lane Theatre – 38 Commerce Street, in New York, NY. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or go online.

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