Joined at the Head

Maggie Mulroney

Maggie Mulroney

… Robin Pearson Rose

Jim Burroughs … Jeff Allin

Maggy Burroughs

… Catharine Butterfield

With: Marianna Harris, Christopher Hutchison, Barbara Keegan, Richard Tanner, Freyda Thomas, John Towey.

Storytelling is a tricky business. Doing it well requires rigorous honesty — and how many of us are willing to be totally honest, especially when the subject is ourselves? Playwright Catherine Butterfield faces this issue head-on in “Joined at the Head,” which simultaneously tells a story and provides considerable insight into the process of telling a story.

If that sounds pretentiously postmodern, fear not; Butterfield deftly avoids the pitfalls she has set up for herself. While self-referential plays usually tend to distance the audience emotionally, this one uses its look-at-what-I’m-doing-here form to pull the audience closer to the material.

That’s quite a trick, and it gives the play a feeling of stylistic freshness that nicely complements its intelligence and charm.

The central character is Maggie Mulroney (Robin Pearson Rose), a successful author who has returned to Boston to plug her latest best-seller.

To her surprise, she gets a call from Jim Burroughs, her high-school sweetheart of 20 years earlier. He invites her over to meet his wife Maggy (same name, different spelling) — who happens to be dying of cancer.

Maggie (the writer) steps out of the play from time to time to speak to the audience, guiding the material along and interpreting its meaning. During one such digression, she is interrupted by Maggy (the wife), who insists she is romaticizing the tale and challenges her to be more honest.

After several such exchanges, Maggie decides to let the story tell itself, and the result is a much deeper and more complex tale than the initial scenes would indicate.

Butterfield isn’t the wittiest writer in the world — her laugh lines are seldom all that funny — but as the play gets more serious, her writing gets more assured.

Director Pamela Berlin handles this material expertly, getting superb performances out of her three leads (if not from all members of the supporting cast). Rose is the embodiment of Maggie; this somewhat chilly character is constantly on guard, and the audience senses that immediately.

Jeff Allin similarly embodies Jim’s decency, as well as his inability to acknowledge his emotional needs. Author Butterfield (who, oddly, gives herself the least showy role) brings warmth and strength to Maggy without turning her into the standard-issue Noble Sufferer.

James Noone’s set, which consists of a frame-within-a-frame, perfectly reflects the play’s structure. Noone nicely utilizes shades of gray — as does this memorable play.

Joined at the Head

(Pasadena Playhouse 638 capacity; $ 40 top)

Production: The Pasadena Playhouse in association with Theatre Corp. of America presents a play by Catherine Butterfield. Director, Pamela Berlin.

Creative: Set design, James Noone; lighting, Liz Stillwell; costumes, Marianna Elliott; sound design, John Kilgore. Opened, reviewed Jan. 16, 1994; runs through Feb. 20.

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