The smell of fresh apples drifts across Union Square this time of the year, at least on farmer’s market days. But the aroma of a less healthy piece of fruit is currently emanating from the Union Square Theater, where Trish Vradenburg’s play “Surviving Grace” — formerly known as “The Apple Doesn’t Fall” — is making a profoundly unnecessary reappearance.
The original title will not mean much to most theatergoers, since the play’s chief claim to renown is that it is the last Broadway play to open and close on the same night, April 14, 1996. Vradenburg may have done some superficial rewriting (the big mother-daughter confrontation is more unpleasant than one recalls), but this is the same uncomfortable blend of sitcom, sentiment and science fiction that smelled pretty rotten the last time around.
On this occasion, Illeana Douglas plays successful but neurotic sitcom writer Kate Griswald, who might not have to worry about her new show’s ratings if she economized on the glib wisecracks in real life. The actress has an idiosyncratic presence, but she doesn’t bring much conviction to her role. Kate greets confirmation of her mother’s illness with nary a shrug, and Douglas’ insistence on stuffing her hands in the pockets of her pants seems to suggest some kind of generalized embarrassment.
Doris Belack is brisk and a bit chilly as her stereotypically kvetching Jewish mother, whose descent into Alzheimer’s and miraculous — if brief — emergence therefrom is the crux of the play’s preposterous plot. (Kenneth Lonergan recently covered similar territory far more truthfully and touchingly in “The Waverly Gallery.”) Still notable for its blandness and lack of credibility is the subplot involving Kate’s romance with mom’s hottie doctor (Armand Schultz), whose insistence on wearing tight-fitting sweaters would not, seems to me, inspire confidence in his professional abilities.
Assorted caricatures round out the cast: Jack (Jerry Grayson), Doris’ dissatisfied husband and Kate’s dad, who dumps his wife for a shiksa shortly after she begins forgetting phone numbers; said shiksa, Lorna, played with a little bit of brazen comic charm and an accent as wide as the Midwest by Cynthia Darlow; and TV star Madge Wellington, a role that amounts to little more than a series of costume changes for Linda Hart, who nevertheless has the smarts to know that when delivering a blatant punchline, it’s wise to let the character acknowledge it as such with a laugh.
David Gallo has supplied a monolithic set brightened up by witty comic touches that threaten to outstrip the dialogue. Jack Hofsiss directs anonymously.
The show had a top ticket of $45 on Broadway on that fateful night in 1996; the Off Broadway top this time around is $55. Revived for one night every six years, with the top ticket rising by 10 bucks a pop, the play might conceivably be profitable on a magical evening sometime around the turn of the next millennium.