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Legit Review: ‘Somewhere Fun’

With: Kate Mulgrew, Kathleen Chalfant, Mary Shultz. With Maria Elena Ramirez, Greg Keller, Griffin Burney, Brooke Bloom, Makenna Ballard, Richard Bekins.

The Vineyard polishes its rep as an incubator of offbeat plays by eccentric playwrights with “Somewhere Fun,” another highwire act in twisted linguistics from Jenny Schwartz.  Grande dame thesps Kate Mulgrew and Kathleen Chalfant are wonderfully cast (by hot helmer Anne Kauffman) as old friends who bump into one another on the street without stopping to talk.  Which is just as well because they’re both on their way to die.  Besides, people don’t talk to communicate in Schwartz’s absurdist comedies.  They talk to talk, and both ladies have much to say before the scribe puts them out of their misery.   

Schwartz has made a nice career out of writing nonsense, which is to say that her experimental plays (“God’s Ear,” “Cause for Alarm”) win awards for playing games with language.  Her articulate if idiosyncratic characters use words in various ways — to think out loud, paint pictures, erect barriers, attack someone, or just to amuse themselves — every which way, it seems, except as a means of communication.

Rosemary Rappaport, the tightly wound “Senior VP with over 25 years of real estate expertise” played with plenty of energy and a wonderful touch of insanity by Mulgrew, uses language as a virtual fortress to shield herself from the indignities of a world that’s moving too fast for her.  “I always could spin a phrase, couldn’t I?” she demands of a friend who has known her since grade school.   “I was ever so clever and a beauty to boot.”

But the past is past and Rosemary’s not in the best of shape these days.  Her husband’s run off with a younger woman and she’s estranged from her son.  “Apparently I’m toxic,” she says.  “Like a cancer.  Like a curse.  Like a dump.  Like a swamp.”   And by the end of the first act, she has worked herself up into having a (literal) meltdown that reduces her to a puddle.  “Alone.  Abandoned.  Flesh dropping off her limbs.”  Mulgrew carries this off like a queen walking up the steps to the scaffold.

Evelyn Armstrong, the intellectual snob played with hilarious superciliousness by Chalfant, utilizes language quite differently, wrapping herself in a snooty upper-class vernacular to cushion herself from the reality that she’s going to die soon.  Despite being wheelchair bound and eventually bedridden, this haughty dame never loses her spirit.  And even on her deathbed, she maintains her dignity.  “I’m what they call Old School,” she says, “last of a dying breed.”

Evelyn has been known to cut people to shreds with her piercing humor.  “It would behoove me to burn off my tongue,” she admits in a moment of candor.  But she can also be wonderfully whimsical.  “I was speaking hyperbolically,” she explains to an unborn baby she may have frightened with one of her diatribes, “as opposed to diabolically.”  Chalfant takes wicked glee in delivering Evelyn’s cheery pronouncements of racism, bigotry and class scorn — and who would deny her such fun?

Sweet Cecelia, a mutual friend played with winning charm by Mary Shultz, is the only person in this chilly landscape who speaks directly and uses language as an instrument of communication.   Although the same age (60-ish) as her technologically illiterate friend Rosemary, Cecilia knows her way around cyberspace and has used the social networks to make friends and find a boyfriend.   “Isn’t it funny, the way the world is going?” she rhetorically asks of shell-shocked Rosemary.  “Gotta get on board.”

Helmer Kauffman handles this peculiar but intriguing material with canny intelligence and ironic wit.  And creative helpmeets Marsha Ginsberg (sets), Jessica Pabst (costumes), Japhy Weideman (lighting) and Daniel Kluger (sound) contribute a design scheme of artful simplicity.  But this is a show meant to pleasure the ear, not the eye, and all the color is in the wordplay, a dizzying display of cliches, banalities, non-sequiturs and corny verbal chestnuts, much of it delivered through free-association.

But once Rosemary and Evelyn have cast off their mortal coils and made way for their less interesting children, the language dissolves into gibberish and the play implodes.

Granted, the whole point of the play is that people don’t communicate through language but simply play with words, in the same mindless way that babies play with their food.  So it’s not surprising that no human connections, emotional or otherwise, are made between characters.  But while this lack of form suits the scribe’s expressionist style, it’s no fun for the poor audience, trapped in three long acts of game playing and longing for someone in charge — the Queen of Hearts, perhaps? — to get serious, chop off some heads, and make some sense.

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Legit Review: 'Somewhere Fun'

Vineyard Theater; 138 seats; $75 top.  Opened June 4, 2013.  Reviewed May 31.  Running time:  TWO HOURS, 30 MIN.

Production: A Vineyard Theater production of a play in three acts by Jenny Schwartz.  

Creative: Directed by Anne Kauffman.  Sets, Marsha Ginsberg; costumes, Jessica Pabst; lighting, Japhy Weideman; sound, Daniel Kluger; props, Kathy Fabian; wigs, Paul Huntley; production stage manager, Megan Schwarz Dickert.

Cast: With: Kate Mulgrew, Kathleen Chalfant, Mary Shultz. With Maria Elena Ramirez, Greg Keller, Griffin Burney, Brooke Bloom, Makenna Ballard, Richard Bekins.

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