Now Circa Then

It's bittersweet to see Carly Mensch debut her finest play so far just as she heads to LA to write for "Weeds."

Gideon - Stephen Plunkett Margie - Maureen Sebastian

It’s bittersweet to see Carly Mensch debut her finest play so far just as she heads to Los Angeles to write for “Weeds.” “Now Circa Then,” Mensch’s sweet-spirited two-hander, stars Stephen Plunkett and Maureen Sebastian as historical reenactors at a venue a lot like the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, realized by designer Lauren Helpern in a great-looking period set that allows the actors plenty of space to play in (it also barely fits into tiny venue Ars Nova, to the dismay of aud members seated to the set’s extreme left). Both characters, as you might imagine, are also living in the past in less literal ways.

Margie, for example, is in New York trying to escape her family in Michigan, where her folks expected her to end up pretty much like Josephine, the woman she plays at the museum: a domestic slave with five kids and no prospects.

Sebastian has a ball playing Margie as Josephine, with all the stiff posturing of an amateur performer in an amateur profession, but it’s her portrayal of Margie proper that really gives the play its depth. A little bit crazy, a little bit sad, a little bit desperate, Margie careens from extreme to extreme until she finally has to decide whether to collapse in self-pity and recrimination at the end of the show or stand up straight. Sebastian’s portrayal is so volatile that we’re not sure whether she’ll pull it out until the end of the show.

As her foil Gideon, Plunkett is lower-key but not eclipsed; Gideon’s sarcastic asides and casual narcissism (the acting “lesson” he gives Margie is one of the funniest scenes in the play) make for several excellent jokes, and his pining for his dead mother — hence the desire to live in the past — gives the character plenty of pathos. When the two reenactors decide to perform (in private) the less tourist-friendly part of their characters’ marriage, the play really lifts off.

Ars Nova a.d. Jason Eagan has directed the proceedings so smoothly that it’s easy to forget about some of the play’s missed opportunities. Margie, who has a Filipino ethnic background, is mistaken for Hispanic by her racist landlady, but it’s just a one-off reference. Margie also appears to have a very complicated relationship with her family, which we never hear explained very fully — the same with Gideon and his widowed dad.

But none of this keeps “Now Circa Then” from being thoroughly charming for its brief running time. Still, it’s just enough to make you wish that Mensch had set her sights a little higher — her last few funny-sad plays have accomplished a lot of the same things we see here. Here’s hoping she finds an idea big enough to challenge her.

Now Circa Then

Ars Nova; 99 seats; $25 top

Production: An Ars Nova presentation of a play in one act by Carly Mensch. Directed by Jason Eagan.

Creative: Set, Lauren Helpern; costumes, Jenny Mathis; lighting, Traci Klainer; sound and original music, Ryan Rumery; production stage manager, Damon W. Arrington. Opened Sept. 27, 2010. Reviewed Sept. 25. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast: Gideon - Stephen Plunkett Margie - Maureen Sebastian

More Legit

  • Because of Winn Dixie review

    Regional Theater Review: 'Because of Winn Dixie,' the Musical

    Watching the musical “Because of Winn Dixie” at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Conn., it’s hard not to think of another show that premiered in the same regional theater 43 years ago. It, too, featured a scruffy stray dog, a lonely-but-enterprising young girl and a closed-off daddy who finally opens up. But “Winn Dixie,” based [...]


    Off Broadway Review: 'Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow'

    There’s something about Anton Chekhov’s whiny sisters that invites comic sendups of “Three Sisters” like the one Halley Feiffer wrote on commission for the Williamstown Theater Festival. Transferred to MCC Theater’s new Off Broadway space and playing in the round in a black box with limited seating capacity, the crafty show feels intimate and familiar. [...]

  • the way she spoke review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Way She Spoke' With Kate del Castillo

    Since the 1990s, scores of women in Juarez, Mexico have been mutilated, raped, and murdered at such a rate that some have called it an epidemic of femicide—killing women and girls solely because they are women. Isaac Gomez’s play “the way she spoke,” produced Off Broadway by Audible and starring Kate del Castillo, confronts the [...]


    Brian Cox Playing LBJ in Broadway Run of 'The Great Society'

    Brian Cox will play President Lyndon Johnson in the Broadway run of “The Great Society,” playwright Robert Schenkkan’s follow-up to “All the Way.” The role of Johnson, a crude, but visionary politician who used the office of the presidency to pass landmark civil rights legislation and social programs, was originally played by Bryan Cranston in [...]

  • Paul McCartney Has Penned Score for

    Paul McCartney Has Been Secretly Writing an 'It's a Wonderful Life' Musical

    The pop superstar who once released a movie and album called “Give My Regards to Broad Street” really does have designs on Broadway, after all. It was revealed Wednesday that Paul McCartney has already written a song score for a stage musical adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The [...]

  • The Night of the Iguana review

    West End Review: 'The Night of the Iguana' With Clive Owen

    If Tennessee Williams is the poet laureate of lost souls, none of his characters as are off-grid as the restless travelers trying to make it through his little-seen 1961 play, “The Night of the Iguana.” Holed up in a remote Mexican homestay, its ragtag itinerants live hand-to-mouth, day by day, as they seek refuge from [...]

  • Moulin Rouge Broadway

    Listen: The Special Sauce in Broadway's 'Moulin Rouge!'

    There are songs in the new Broadway version of “Moulin Rouge!” that weren’t in Baz Luhrmann’s hit movie — but you probably know them anyway. They’re popular tunes by superstars like Beyoncé, Adele and Rihanna, released after the 2001 movie came out, and they’ll probably unleash a flood of memories and associations in every audience [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content