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.
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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.