The TheatreWorks production of "Now Circa Then" now at the Lucie Stern Theatre is about as slick a production as you could imagine of this likeable two-hander. Director Meredith McDonough doesn't miss a beat with two sturdy actors and a stage beautifully dressed by scenic designer Andrew Boyce and lighting designer York Kennedy.
In fact, the set threatens to become the most memorable element of the evening simply because it's so graceful and picture-perfect. When depicting three rooms in a museum very much like the Tenement Museum on New York's Lower East Side, Boyce could easily have just slid a living room, kitchen and bedroom set on and off the stage, but his rooms blend into one another in surprising ways, and watching the set morph from one room in a late-19th-century immigrant apartment to another is absolutely captivating.
That's not to take anything away from actors Kimiye Corwin as Margie, a new tour guide at the museum, and Matt R. Harrington as Gideon, a highly experienced hand in the "living history" business. Both performers are charming and make you want their characters to emerge more fully from the strictures of romantic comedy.
The costumed guides in this particular apartment are playing West Prussian immigrants Julian and Josephine Glockner, who toiled in the garment trade and raised five children in these three small rooms. We hear bits of the guides' spiel, which has them dropping in and out of character as they instruct their tour groups on the challenges of being poor in 1890s New York.
Gideon is an experienced re-enactor (he's done Gettysburg and Plymouth), but Margie, a recent New York transplant from the Midwest, is a complete novice. Of course they clash, especially when Gideon tries to give her acting lessons. Professional actors playing amateur actors can be hilarious, and it is here. But through Gideon's coaching, Margie starts to connect with her character while at the same time connecting with Gideon.
As the romance heats up, it becomes clear that Margie is running from her family, and though ambitious, she is clueless about what she's doing with her life. Gideon, a New York native who still lives with his widower father, is a history fanatic. He says his brain is a "24-hour History Channel," and he shows complete disdain for modern society and its digital temples and devices (he doesn't own a mobile phone, naturally). Our times, he says, are culturally bankrupt. That's why he prefers the richness of the past.
Margie, on the other hand, says history is bull and that we should "stop worshipping old facts." She needs to bring him into the present, and he needs to ground her in the past.
Both tasks will be accomplished before show's end, but not before Mensch offers some crackling scenes of Margie and Gideon at work in their Josephine and Julian characters in which the past and the present are working on each other in surprising and intriguing ways.
By the time "Now Circa Then" is history, the characters of Margie and Gideon have not emerged as fully as we might hope. They each make the necessary evolution, but the play's brevity and its light tone prevent them from becoming truly interesting characters. It's especially disappointing that the Julian and Josephine personas remain so much in the background — sort of as tour-guide jokes. Their fraught lives, while the subject of a by-rote museum tour, should land more powerfully if Mensch's take on the resonance of history is going to make a significant impact.
It seems Mensch is aiming lower than that. She wants to entertain, which she does with her fresh take on the "meet cute" New York romance. But the notion of history as a vital and necessary element of the present is actually more interesting than the play lets it be. We get glimpses and tastes of this theme, especially as Margie takes control of her life, but it seems there's more to "Now Circa Then" than its present incarnation reveals.
What: "Now Circa Then" by Carly Mensch, presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: through April 1, with 7:30 p.m. shows Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. shows Saturday and Sunday and 7 p.m. shows Sunday (no 7 p.m. show on April 1).
Cost: Tickets are $19-$69 with student, senior and educator discounts.
Info: Go to http://www.theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.
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