Monday, May 5, 2014

Fighting Over Beverly at Harlequin

David Wright as Zelly and Dennis Rolly as Archie

Harlequin Production’s love affair with playwright Israel Horovitz continues this season with the deceptively light comedy Fighting Over Beverly, the sixth Horovitz play Harlequin has produced in six years — each one a gem.

Dennis Rolly as Archie and Karen Nelsen as Beverly
Typical of Horovitz, Fighting Over Beverly mixes eccentric characters into a concoction of outrageous comedy blended with stark reality. His characters are as real as they get. They are typically middle age or elderly working class, no-bullshit characters who set up audiences with belly laughs before hitting them with raw emotion. Horovitz never shies away from touchy and controversial material as in the rage and tension of American Jewish and Palestinian students trapped together in a hotel room during the bombing of Beirut in Six Hotels and the sex and murder in the dark comedy Gloucester Blue. But he can be sweet as well, as in the romantic comedy My Old Lady. Fighting Over Beverly is more in the vein of the latter.
David Wright and Dennis Rolly
During World War II a young English woman was engaged to British pilot Archie Bennett but jilted him to marry the American pilot Zelly Shimma. Now, half a century later, Archie (Dennis Rolly) comes to Gloucester, Mass. (site of nearly all Horovitz plays) to steal his wife, Beverly (Karen Nelsen), away from Zelly (David Wright). He says Zelly has had her for 53 years and now it’s his turn, and the two old codgers fight over Beverly’s heart. Thrown into the mix and also fighting over Beverly is Zelly and Beverly’s 40-year old daughter, Cecily (Ann Flannigan), a driven executive in the Los Angeles entertainment industry with a history of failed marriages.

The plot seems simple enough — two old men out of touch with reality ridiculously fighting over the love of an old woman who may or may not want either one of them. But this is a deeply layered story that is much more complex than it at first seems. Into the comedic stew it mixes the whole history of foreign war brides who left their homes never to return because they married American soldiers — usually in an all-fired romantic hurry without thinking it though and often without knowing them well enough to actually love them; yet they typically stayed with them and endured for a lifetime out of a sense of duty and for the sake of the children.

The writing is superb, and it is brought to life by acting that is equally outstanding. It is an ensemble piece Rolly is as funny as he’s been in any other play I’ve seen — and there have been plenty, from the mysterious Mr. Lockhart in Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer to an insane Marley in Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol to roles in just about every Shakespeare play the bard wrote, nearly 70 plays in all according to the program for this one. His gestures, his voice and his strutting rooster posture as Archie are hilarious. Unlike fellow critic Christian Carvajal who admirably seems to be able to recognize accents down to the town if not the block a fellow lives on, I can spot if an accent is vaguely British or Irish or from Massachusetts or Louisiana. Rolly’s is British enough and I enjoyed it.

Wright, who was outstanding as the crotchety old goat Richard Harden in The Seafarer and as the afflicted grandfather in Horovitz’s Unexpected Tenderness, again plays an unlikable but somehow endearing character as Zelly. He’s gruff and easily angered, and when he expresses bitterness it is convincing, yet you can’t help but feel like you’d like to spend time with the guy.

Nelsen is another veteran of Horovitz plays at Harlequin (Mathilde in My Old Lady). As with Wright’s Zelly, you can’t help but love her and pity her and ultimately admire her strength and courage as she portrays a very conflicted Beverly. She is utterly believable.

As Cecily, Flannigan is a firecracker of nervous energy, and when she is caught off guard when her parents do unexpected things — as they do often in this play — her expressions of astonishment are comic gold.

Also comic gold is the big fight scene, which takes place practically in slow motion and is more stylized than realistic. I honestly couldn’t tell if that was intentional or not, but it was hilarious.

I could almost call Fighting Over Beverly a romantic farce, except farces are never so believable. This is a great play played well.

WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays, 8p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. through May 24
WHERE: State Theater, 202 E. 4th Ave., Olympia
TICKETS: prices vary, call for details
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151;

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