- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2000

Joe Calarco, the radiantly inventive director of such shows as "Nijinsky's Last Dance," "Sideshow" and "R&J;," turns his attention to play writing in "The Absence of Spring."

The result is a meager mishmash of ill-wrought characters, special effects that are spectacular but meaningless, and elements borrowed from "Angels in America," "The Wizard of Oz," "Seinfeld," "The Fisher King," "King Lear," "The Tempest" and, oddly enough, "Our Town."

A play with this many things in it should at least be interesting to watch. But lighting designer Chris Lee and set designer James Kronzer, who pull off natural disasters and seismic mood shifts with Hollywood car-crash movie aplomb, don't save "The Absence of Spring" from a staggering lack of energy.

The production starts to drone on right from the beginning as we meet Elaine (Minda Harden), a phone-sex operator who is looking for a clean place to live outside New York, having a nosh with her homosexual friend Jason (Erik Sorensen). Jason possesses some sort of visionary power but concentrates instead on picking up the waiter, Marty (Timothy Getman).

This trio grates on the nerves from the get-go. They are three attractive people who natter on about nothing and seem to have no interior lives, much less moments of profundity. They complain about the weather — it is still snowing in April (obviously no one has ever survived a Minnesota winter, which often lasts well into May) — and few things are duller on stage than characters yakking about meteorology.

If their air-bubble conversation isn't bad enough, across the stage in yet another Manhattan restaurant, three more people carry on irritatingly vague rants and raves — Christina (Vanessa Lock), a strung-tight filmmaker; her nebbishy husband, Larry (Michael Glenn); and Georgia (Susan Lynskey), a waitress perpetually in a dither.

Outside the plate-glass windows of these various restaurants, a street person known as Mama (Susannah Berryman) blathers speeches that are part messianic and part rhymes from "Cinderella."

In the midst of this psychobabble what becomes clear is that all these people are linked by a shared tragedy — a plane crash that took place over the British Isles five years ago. The crash cost Mama her husband and her sanity, her daughter Georgia any comforting memories, Christina her twin sister, and Jason his best friend and lover.

Now Christina can't relax and has lousy marital sex. Jason is afraid to love again. He also is a reluctant homosexual prophet, sort of like Prior Walter in "Angels in America," but not nearly as brilliantly drawn. He and Mama feel that something catastrophic is about to happen and that it is their job to warn the populace.

A slap on the face might snap everybody out of it, but Mr. Calarco chooses instead to have all the characters land miraculously in the same subway at the same time during some sort of disaster. Gigantic rumblings and fallen pillars are what's needed to shake these people out of their misery and selfishness and let them rejoin the land of the living.

"The Absence of Spring" is a torrent of cliches that beat down audience members until they can just sit there helplessly and wait for it all to end. It also contains the requisite homosexual sex scene, actually one of the fresher moments in the play, as Jason cannot stop sneezing, much to his lover's chagrin; the bar scene that flashes from one character to another; the crazy-street-loony-who-is-actually-quite-powerful moment; and the scene we have seen in so many movies, in which Elaine, the phone-sex operator, describes how soul-deadening her job is.

The characters are not only trite, but trivial. The audience doesn't know anything about them, and that turns out to be OK because we have no desire to delve further into their psyches. Because the play is pretty much confined to their conversation and very little action, this is a problem.

The dialogue also could use some sprucing up, because the characters have to say such things as, "I want to go to a place where God isn't scrubbed with lemon Pledge." The actors grapple bravely with what they are given — Miss Harden is particularly vivid as the dissatisfied Elaine — but even they seem worn down by the time they tackle the unenviable task in Act 2 of yakking with the dead, who have come back to tell them how good life is. By this time, one is slapping one's head in disbelief.

"The Absence of Spring" is meant to be a fable about learning how to live, love and laugh. Instead, it reminds us that though theater often is a splendid escape, it also can be something from which we are mad to escape.

{*}WHAT: "In the Absence of Spring"WHERE: Signature Theatre (ww.sig-online.org), 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, ArlingtonWHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 17TICKETS: $25 to $28PHONE: 800/955-5566 or 703/218-6500

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