Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


11.08.2009

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The writing process is difficult to translate into theater, because so much of it is deeply private and not easily put into words. Kitty Dubin's The Blank Page, in its world premiere at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre, uses a writer's professional and personal relationships to give the audience a better view, and very nearly triumphs.

Novelist Amy Kaplan, played here by a guarded Sarab Kamoo, is facing a three-month deadline for her second novel. The play covers those three months and ends on the deadline day. Meanwhile, her rabbi husband appears to give little more than lip service in supporting her, and a headstrong, youthful graduate student serves as a walking reminder of the vigor Amy had when she wrote her first, bestselling novel. Despite the play's title, there is a book in place at the beginning of the play; Dubin avoids clich├ęs like writer's block, instead showing the audience a professional, disciplined scribe and her attendant insecurities.

The main thrust of the plot — will she or won't she complete the novel on time? — is complicated to stage, because it's not clear to the audience, let alone to Amy, what it will take to convince her that the book is finished. Yet the three characters with which she interacts (the aforementioned husband and student, as well as a university colleague, played with hilarious touches by Naz Edwards) work with and against her to raise the stakes. The second act builds to a dangerous, heated place; director Gillian Eaton's best work is here, when the future of not just the book, but everything, seems in flux. The play overextends beyond the satisfaction of the resonant story arc, and I was a bit let down by the final moments. Dubin returns to the writing process as a sort of allegory, but Amy's revelations tell us less than her words and actions did in prior scenes.

Kamoo and Edwards were the standouts in this cast, the former expertly navigating the conflict of mentoring a young professional who may pose a direct threat to her own career, and the latter giving unexpected life to her character's throwaway storyline. John Lepard seemed to falter in early scenes as nothing more than a foil for Amy, but later revealed fully rounded and interesting character in his own right. Ambition and energy were well played by Leslie Ann Handelman's student, but when the character's motives came into question in the second act, I found her ambiguous choices to be a bit too muddled.

All elements of the production were working in tandem, from the beautifully symmetrical book-lover's set to Mary Copenhagen's costume design (indeed, some of Amy's cardigan sweaters may have been too lovely, as I was momentarily distracted coveting more than one). Designer Monika Essen managed to create clearly delineated settings within one cohesive space. In all, The Blank Page is certainly imperfect in a few places, but quite successful given the complicated subject matter.

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