The Colony Theater has a hit on its hands with its superb L.A. premiere production of “Trying,” a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the word. The danger with most autobiographical pieces is a tendency to sentimentalize the material, but playwright Joanna McClelland Glass demonstrates admirable restraint, creating intelligent, articulate characters who seem completely authentic for the play’s 1960s time period. Cameron Watson’s solid direction puts the focus squarely on the acting and is rewarded with a magnificent perf by Alan Mandell and very strong work from Rebecca Mozo. This duet makes for a truly delightful show.
In November 1967, young Sarah Schorr (Mozo) is hired to be a secretary to ex-attorney general Francis Biddle (Mandell). His wife warns her in advance that Biddle is difficult — that, indeed, “spine is the primary prerequisite for the job.” Biddle is condescending and arrogant in equal measure, but Sarah is equal to his challenge. As time goes by, it becomes apparent that Biddle is fighting a losing battle against mortality, and the impressive, scholarly man who once served as a judge at the Nuremberg trials can now barely dial a telephone.
Mandell offers an exquisitely nuanced perf as Biddle that feels like King Lear writ small. It’s a symphony of stories and opinions, well seasoned with insults, undercut by human frailty, and Mandell captures every moment indelibly. His resonant voice, alternately booming and wheedling, cracked and commanding, is used to wonderful effect. This award-worthy performance, a perfect match of actor and role, deserves to be seen widely.
Any actor would be hard-pressed to compete with Mandell here, but Mozo is admirably up to the task. She succeeds in how Sarah’s reactions to Biddle reveal her inner strength and how Sarah gradually asserts herself. Although Mozo plays straight woman to any number of Mandell’s funny lines, her tart responses and long-suffering smiles add notably to the wit of the show. When Sarah has finally had enough of Biddle and lets him have it with both barrels, Mozo’s anger is impressively real, and the actress demonstrates serious dramatic talent.
Glass’ writing is literate, touching and laugh-out-loud funny, and Watson’s direction gets every detail right. Victoria Profitt’s effective office set is densely detailed, from the books to the blue lights representing gas flame in some heaters, and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes seem historically accurate.