Review: ‘Wintertime’

The wisdom of love, the anguish of love, foolishness, jealousy, absurdity, boredom and infinite delight -- all the things that make love indispensable and impossible come into play in Charles L. Mee's wacky, elegant and amazingly buoyant "Wintertime."

The wisdom of love, the anguish of love, foolishness, jealousy, absurdity, boredom and infinite delight — all the things that make love indispensable and impossible come into play in Charles L. Mee’s wacky, elegant and amazingly buoyant “Wintertime.” Classic farce works best in a stratified or rigidly ruled society that absolutely requires deception to keep itself functioning, a condition Americans, in their zeal for candor and spontaneous self-revelation, tend not to share. But Mee reaches into antiquity for the theme of Eros that transcends social particulars.

“Wintertime” is a small encyclopedia of classic comedy. Its amorous deliberations recall Moliere, its soulfulness echoes Chekhov, some of its speech rhythms derive from Noel Coward, a single door brought on for everyone to slam is an homage to Feydeau, and its straight-ahead energies are a throwback to Kaufman & Hart — before irony, before our inflated currency of wisecracks and attitude.

The setting is an idyllic woodland vacation home, just before New Year’s Eve. A gentle snow falls outside the wall-length window. Annie Smart’s spare, stylish set and Robert Wierzel’s lighting give us a quietly sumptuous white-on-white look. Bridal colors.

The ardor of young Ariel and Jonathan’s love finds piercingly beautiful expression in the voice of Dawn Upshaw singing “Lorsque vous n’aurez rien a faire” from Massenet’s “Cherubin.” Jonathan plans to propose marriage. The couple’s boundless joy leads them into an impromptu pas de deux, an expression of perfect pleasure.

But hold on — Jonathan’s mother Maria emerges from her bedroom. They thought they had the place to themselves. And what’s this? Francois, her lover, follows. Both are in bathrobes. Seconds later Jonathan’s father Frank is trudging up to the house with his lover Edmund not far behind. Everyone’s best laid plans are beginning to go awry.

But mature adults don’t run and hide. They discuss. They explain themselves. They try to make the best of an awkward situation. Francois especially, with his classic French paradiddles on the vagaries of love, attempts to offer a civilized understanding of things. Love is eternal, incomprehensible, but beautiful.

It takes approximately eight minutes into act one for civilization as they know it to begin shattering around them. Bertha, a neighbor, rushes to the house to inform everyone that Hilda has fallen into the freezing lake. Hilda, rescued, is not fond of her hosts’ self-absorbed entanglements and lets them know it. Enter Bob, a compost salesman. Then Dr. Benoit, a lovely Eurasian doctor and former lover to Francois, asking after his wife.

By the end of act one, Jonathan is literally bashing his head against a tree, everyone is enraged at everyone else, and Francois, dressed in black lingerie and silk stockings, is hauling out dishes and other household items for people to hurl in anger.

And so Frank and Francois and Edmund and Maria and even the crusty Hilda and nut-case Bob must ponder this out loud. Which they do, ardently, heroically, hysterically and with such purity of intent that only operatic arias like “O mio babbino caro” can express the height of their farcical anguish.

Mee’s raucous Fellini-esque ending, in which everyone is stripped down to their cartoonish underwear to dance the night away, suggests that there’s not much we can do about our love-and-life dilemma except experience it to the fullest.

“Wintertime” is a generously divided ensemble piece in which everyone is given moments. Daoud Heidami’s Jonathan quivers with the total hapless rage of a young person who hasn’t learned to come to grips with the curves life will throw his way; similarly, Emily Donahoe’s Ariel can never lower her temperature once things get out of hand — her explosive intensity, once exquisitely focused in romance, becomes a barely containable mess afterward.

Randy Danson’s Maria is a dark earth mother whose sensual wisdom shrewdly qualifies her warmth. She knows what she wants when she wants it, and she’s not going to suffer anyone’s self-righteous moralizing.

Nicholas Hormann’s Frank is a distinguished-looking patriarch who often expresses the most sense as well as the greatest hypocrisy. This is a play about mostly middle-aged people, however frisky; Hormann’s smooth shifts in tone and attitude reflect how easily we come to live with the best and worst in ourselves.

Lola Pashalinski is the wry, stolid, stout Hilda, surprisingly capable of cutting loose — when she moons the audience (as does everyone else in a chorus line), her big behind has a demure flower stuck in its middle. Lauren Klein’s bespectacled Bertha makes a perfect companion; they are two gray women whose edges and doubts have been worn away in a steady life together.

Bruce McKenzie’s deadpan portrayal of Bob makes his loopy theories — including the link among fruit-flies, pygmies, and God — even more hilarious than they’d be if he acted weird.

Michi Barall is comely and skilled as the pretty young doctor. Tom Nelis’ Edmund, helpless in everyone else’s entanglements, is a portrait in desiccated rue. Francois Giroday as the sexual omnivore Francois (the names are probably not coincidental) nearly steals the play with his grand fulminations and compulsive French intellectualizing that only add to the general mayhem in the name of calming it.

Les Waters’ adroit direction sees to it that “Wintertime” remains a balanced piece and that all its zaniness doesn’t conceal a fundamental sense of pleasure and joy. Time and not brief critical acquaintance will tell if “Wintertime” is a masterwork by a gifted American writer whose closest equivalent in mining classic tradition is the composer Charles Ives. Right now, it will simply make viewers glad to be alive.


La Jolla Playhouse; 492 seats; $49


A La Jolla Playhouse world premiere presentation, in association with the Long Wharf Theater, of the Charles L. Mee comedy. Directed by Les Waters.


Sound design, Matthew Spiro; movement, Jean Isaacs; scenic design, Annie Smart; costumes, Christal Weatherly; lighting, Robert Wierzel; stage manager, Steven Adler. Opened Aug. 18, 2002; reviewed Aug. 27. Running time: 2 HOURS.


Dr. Benoit - Michi Barall Maria - Randy Danson Ariel - Emily Donahoe Francois - Francois Giroday Jonathan - Daoud Heidami Frank - Nicholas Hormann Bertha - Lauren Klein Bob - Bruce McKenzie Edmund - Tom Nelis Hilda - Lola Pashalinski
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