This literate, moving and surprisingly compelling two-hander from veteran scribe Joanna McClelland Glass is the most commercially viable new work to emerge from Chi’s Tony-winning new-play citadel in years.
There’s nothing radical in its character-driven structure — young female secretary with issues tames but also comes to love irascible but whip-smart old judge on the edge of senility — but this retro, sociopolitical docudrama set in 1967 tickles the brain delightfully, and will send older audiences into rapture. With two actors, two juicy roles and a single interior setting, it could be profitable in a commercial legit outing.
A Chi hit currently showcasing a bravura and deeply poignant perf from 78-year-old Gotham thesp Fritz Weaver (“Holocaust”), the play was based on the scribe’s experiences working as a secretary for Francis Biddle, the attorney general under Franklin Roosevelt and also the head American judge at the Nuremberg Nazi trials.
Transplanted Canuck McClelland Glass — who also penned the Tony-nominated “Play Memory” and the Eva Le Gallienne Broadway vehicle “To Grandmother’s House We Go” — makes the most of her dramatic hay here from sticking together two disparate characters and letting them go at each other in the kind of repressed-WASP fashion beloved by the likes of A.R. Gurney.
Judge Biddle is a crusty octogenarian who has gone through secretaries like butter but still needs help with his memoirs and correspondence.
Hired by Biddle’s unseen spouse, authorial mouthpiece Sarah Schorr (Kati Brazda) is a smart and ambitious young Canadian trapped in a miserable marriage to an academic. As played by Brazda, a Chi up-and-comer adept at polite but repressed characters smoldering just under their polite surface, Sarah is determined not to be intimidated or oppressed by Biddle’s snooty airs and learning, but she nonetheless admires the old fellow, since he stood up as a progressive liberal democrat despite his patrician upbringing.
In turn, Biddle first sees Sarah as an upstart with the irritating habit of splitting infinitives, but later comes to admire her as a self-made woman whose journey has been far more challenging than his own.
Primary strength of the play, which features exquisitely literate dialogue and uncommonly careful character detailing, is that the political issues of the volatile time bubble nicely under the surface without ever popping up too aggressively and spoiling the surface tale.
Play is especially resonant for anyone with an aging parent–or, indeed, folks struggling to retain their own faculties. And McClelland Glass walks a deft line between validating her self-made feminist heroine yet also celebrating many of the values of old-fashioned, upper-crust liberalism represented by the struggling Biddle.
The awkward final scene — in which the pair must bid each other farewell — has a few off notes, and the play could be trimmed by 10 minutes or so. But thanks in no small measure to a superb performance from Weaver, who oozes depth, intelligence and vulnerability, “Trying” is a palpable hit with a very viable afterlife.