The uncharacteristic sprightliness with which the less-than-spry matinee crowd stood to applaud at the end of "Trying" gives some indication of how profoundly the play's themes connect with that aud . But the depth of feeling in Joanna McClelland Glass' slender but affecting two-hander about aging, friendship and intergenerational respect should resonate across age barriers. Distinguished by a richly nuanced leading performance from veteran Fritz Weaver, this polished production bows Off Broadway after a well-received run at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater.</B>
The uncharacteristic sprightliness with which the less-than-spry matinee crowd stood to applaud at the end of “Trying” gives some indication of how profoundly the play’s themes connect with that aud . But the depth of feeling in Joanna McClelland Glass’ slender but affecting two-hander about aging, friendship and intergenerational respect should resonate across age barriers. Distinguished by a richly nuanced leading performance from veteran Fritz Weaver, this polished production bows Off Broadway after a well-received run at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater.
Play is based on McClelland Glass’ experiences in the late 1960s as a freshly transplanted “prairie populist” from Saskatchewan, Canada. It traces the development of the working relationship between 81-year-old Philadelphia aristocrat Judge Francis Biddle (Weaver), the former U.S. attorney general under Franklin D. Roosevelt and chief judge of the American military tribunal at Nuremberg, and his harried but resilient 25-year-old secretary Sarah Schorr (Kati Brazda).
Unfolding over an eight-month period in the semi-retired judge’s office over his Georgetown garage, the simple odd-couple scenario chronicles the gradual changes wrought in each as they work closely together from 9 a.m. to noon each day.
A brilliant but irascible man who remains lucid, aside from occasional lapses when his mind “excuses itself,” Biddle is antagonistic with the new secretary at first, predicting as swift a departure as her predecessors in the job. The judge is a Harvard man who takes issue with her defensive presentation of herself as “not one of those pleated-plaid Ivy girls,” pompously reprimanding her for her split infinitives and what he perceives as an inappropriately confrontational manner.
But Sarah, who describes herself in prairie parlance as “a bugger for work,” perseveres with the cantankerous old man, balancing his unruly checkbook, taming his chaotic correspondence and driving him to respect publisher deadlines with his memoirs.
There’s an appealing delicacy in the playwright’s brushstrokes as she paints the gradual shifts in the relationship, the growth of trust, mutual respect, behavioral influence and, ultimately, affection between boss and employee. Jeff Bauer’s lived-in set subtly reflects the power shift with small changes as Sarah becomes freer to organize and the judge’s movement becomes more impaired.
Sarah comes to admire the difficult man for his passion for historical accuracy and for having gone against the political grain to take a liberal stand on important issues. For his part, Biddle — despite insisting that Sarah’s personal life remain a taboo topic — recognizes the unhappily married young woman’s backbone and unerring sense of herself. A kind of awkward intimacy develops between them as Sarah massages Biddle’s arthritic fingers, a suggestion he finds outrageously bold when it first arises.
However, “Trying” suffers from a certain plodding repetitiveness once the nature of the interplay between Sarah and the judge has been established. As a narrative, the play is never as nimble as its witty dialogue, full of acerbic barbs and erudite samplings of literature, politics and history that provide vivid context.
The static nature of the setting is amplified in the protracted midsection, in which McClelland Glass continues to illustrate the already clear central dynamic without advancing the action. And while director Sandy Shinner doesn’t dwell unduly on the tender moments, the writer is unable to resist predictable sentimentality in the final scene — a tear-inducing coda that feels untrue to Biddle’s character and out of alignment with the economy shown elsewhere.
The play has significant emotional impact despite this, thanks in no small part to Weaver, who shows a masterfully light touch in sketching a man both resigned to and resentful of the way his body and mind are shutting down.
It’s a complex, textured and enormously sympathetic perf — prickly and arrogant yet sadly beaten and helpless — that will touch deep chords for those experiencing the inexorable erosion of old age in themselves or someone close. “I’m in the process of leaving this life. The exit sign is flashing over the door. The door is ajar,” decrees the judge without an ounce of self-pity.
While hers is by far the less showy role, Chicago thesp Brazda gives sterling support, quietly revealing not only Sarah’s sharp, curious mind and proudly pragmatic nature but her struggle to reconcile her Canadian civility and work ethic with her refusal to be subjugated or condescended to.