'The Singing Forest'

Play's premise begs to have its head examined.

A farce about the Holocaust? “The Singing Forest,” Craig Lucas’ latest free-association fantasy, isn’t quite that. But a Viennese woman’s secret shame about what she did to survive is the driving engine of the plot, while the production style takes its dominant cue from the time-controlled entrances and exits and the lightning character changes of stage farce. Throw in a quasi-comic subplot about rival gay psychiatrists and a guest appearance by Sigmund Freud and the play’s premise about a family’s need to resolve its unfinished history begs to have its head examined.

The centerpiece of this modern-day fable is Loe Rieman (Olympia Dukakis), one of those quick-witted, sharp-tongued older women who navigate the city like they own it. Although nothing gets past them and nobody goes unnoticed, such women are largely invisible to the rest of the world.

Running into her at Starbucks, where she’s a regular, you’d never guess Loe was born in Vienna and now lives in Staten Island amidst the detritus of her cultured past; that she lived through the Nazi occupation, was trained as a psychiatrist, has written several pop-psych books — and hands out kindly advice to clients who call her for phone sex. “It’s hard for you to commit, isn’t it?” she asks a caller who has just broken down and admitted he misses his mother.

Loe is a marvelous character, and Dukakis is altogether splendid in the role; she plays Loe with an earthy goodness that conveys all of her wit and wisdom without masking any of her pain. The “singing forest” she carries in her head is made up of all mankind, voices raised in “cries of death, keening, loss, terror.”

Sympathetic as she is to other people’s problems, Loe is not quick to confide her own secrets to others, and she’s not even on speaking terms with her own family. We come to learn, though, that both her father, an associate of Freud’s, and her brother, a homosexual, died in concentration camps. “I just stood there and did nothing,” Loe remembers, watching her red-headed younger self (played with spirit by Susan Pourfar) in the most vivid of several flashback scenes loosely staged by helmer Mark Wing-Davey.

So long as Loe is working her jaw, Lucas’ musings about the tenacious grip of memory on a troubled mind resonate with lyric urgency. “Aren’t some things beyond amending?” she says challengingly to those at an AA meeting. “Perhaps it is better for you to feel shame.” And the insights she passes on to her clients (“everybody loves you but you”) are more useful than the phone sex they signed up for.

But in his determination to find farcical humor in one aspect of Loe’s girlhood trauma — her guilt over failing to defend her homosexual brother — Lucas has concocted an elaborate subplot involving two gay shrinks (nice comedy chops from Mark Blum and Rob Campbell) lusting after the same straight patient. The situation is amusing enough on its own terms and rather sexy given the genuinely sweet appeal of Jonathan Groff (“Spring Awakening”) as the prize they are fighting over.

Titillating though it may be to watch Groff strip off for a quick sauna scene (well lighted by Japhy Weideman), the shrinks’ broadly farcical rivalry does little to advance Lucas’ continuing examination of the mental escape hatches through which people jump in a futile attempt to flee from their own memories.

The Singing Forest

Public Theater; 199 seats; $70 top

Production

A Public Theater presentation of a play in three acts by Craig Lucas. Directed by Mark Wing-Davey.

Creative

Set, John McDermott; costumes, Gabriel Berry; lighting, Japhy Weideman; original music and sound, John Gromada; production stage manager, Rick Steiger. Opened April 28, 2009. Reviewed April 23. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

Dr. Oliver Pfaff, Martin Rieman - Mark Blum Shar Unger, Max Schur - Rob Campbell Jules Ahmad, Simon Hirsch - Louis Cancelmi Loe Rieman - Olympia Dukakis Bill, Sigmund Freud - Pierre Epstein Gray Korankyi, Walter Rieman - Jonathan Groff Laszlo Fickes, Gerhardt Zeitzler - Randy Harrison Bertha Ahmad, Anna Freud - Deborah Offner Beth Adler, Young Loe - Susan Pourfar

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