Unexpected Tenderness

Ben Savage, star of ABC's "Boy Meets World," makes an impressive stage debut as teenager Roddy Stern in Israel Horovitz's memory play of growing up in a New England Jewish family terrorized by an emotionally unstable father.

With:
Archie Stern/ Roddy the Elder . . . Barry Thompson Roddy Stern . . . . Ben Savage Molly Stern . . . . Marya Kazakova Sylvie Stern . . . Sarah Sankowich Jacob Stern . . . . Stefan Gierasch Haddie Stern . . . Erica Yohn Willie . . . . Tom Woodward

Ben Savage, star of ABC’s “Boy Meets World,” makes an impressive stage debut as teenager Roddy Stern in Israel Horovitz’s memory play of growing up in a New England Jewish family terrorized by an emotionally unstable father.

The playwright has crafted an intriguing drama that expertly balances a family’s efforts to maintain a sense of humor and day-to-day normalcy while desperately trying to placate the increasingly dangerous paranoia of household head Archie (Barry Thompson).

Director Hope Alexander-Willis never achieves the necessary conversational flow and emotional empathy necessary to truly communicate the familial relationships indicated by Horovitz. As represented by this ensemble, the Stern family just hasn’t spent enough time together.

Set in 1950s Goucester, Mass., household of the Sterns, Roddy narrates a brief but cathartic period in the history of a family tainted by generations of masculine distrust of — but complete dependency upon — women.

Roddy’s truck-driver father has carried this inbred patriarchal taint to a level of emotional and physical volatility that is threatening to rip the family apart. The only islands of reprieve occur after Archie’s severe outbursts, when the remorse-stricken Archie pleads for forgiveness and is enveloped by the family’s ability to demonstrate “unexpected tenderness.”

Savage offers the perfect balance of adolescent insecurity and emerging maturity as the 15-year-old boy who is struggling to keep his family together by being a shield against his father’s violence. Savage manages to capture every nuance of this inherently cheerful, thoroughly likable young man, who fears he will someday be engulfed by the same madness that afflicts his father and grandfather.

As the deceptively soft-spoken, often humorous Archie, Thompson is always standing outside his character waiting for the next line to drive his characterization and his motivation. Archie’s complex actions, which can range from lighthearted banter to ravenous lust to cold-blooded rage, are layered on by Thompson as the occasion fits, but never illuminate the full character of the man.

Also suffering from character deprivation is Marya Kazakova as Archie’s deeply loving but totally subjugated wife, Molly. Kazakova adequately communicates Molly’s inherent sensuality, but her motivations and meander-ing accent often shift clumsily to fit the situation at hand.

Erica Yohn is excellent as Roddy’s grandmother, Haddie, who desperately attempts to find some area of emo-tional comfort amidst the tyranny of her son, the occasional cruelty of her daughter-in-law and the complete dependency of her bad-tempered, palsy-stricken husband, Jacob. Gierasch offers a bit of comic relief as the cantankerous, woman-hating old man whose affliction miraculously disappears once his wife is no longer around to service him.

Highlights of this production are the brief but telling appearances of Tom Woodward as Archie’s monumentally disreputable and obscene trucking partner, Willie. Willie’s overt, abhorrent behavior towards women is Horovitz’s manifestation of Archie’s psychological beliefs about members of the opposite sex.

As the youngest member of the Stern household, Sarah Sankowich is not quite believable as Archie’s fearful but always forgiving 13-year-old daughter, Sylvie.

The excellent living room/kitchen setting of Don Eitner and the imaginative lighting Carlos Colunga do much to communicate the proper time and place.

Unexpected Tenderness

Drama; Marilyn Monroe Theater; 99 seats; $18 top - Reviewed May 2.

Production: A Lee Strasberg Creative Center and Anna Strasberg presentatuon of a play in two acts by Israel Horovitz. Directed by Hope Alexander-Willis.

Cast: Archie Stern/ Roddy the Elder . . . Barry Thompson Roddy Stern . . . . Ben Savage Molly Stern . . . . Marya Kazakova Sylvie Stern . . . Sarah Sankowich Jacob Stern . . . . Stefan Gierasch Haddie Stern . . . Erica Yohn Willie . . . . Tom WoodwardSets, Don Eitner; costumes, Christy Coble; lighting, Carlos Colunga; sound, John Zalewski. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

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