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November 25, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, November 25, 2005

Two love stories in one Two love stories in one (November 25, 2005)

'Romance in D' sweetens the holiday season with laughter

by Jeanie Forte

Break away from the usual "Nutcracker" to enjoy this heartwarming play.

This contemporary play by James Sherman, currently showing at the BusBarn Stage Company, covers two holiday traditions and two romances as it bounces back and forth between two adjacent apartments. Isabel Fox (Alex Alexander) has just moved in, having recently separated from her husband and her job. Her inept suicide attempt results in an encounter with her neighbor, Charles Norton (John Byrd). It also brings her father, George (Al Fischer), to Chicago to see about his daughter. George, in turn, happens to meet Charles' mother, Helen (Wendy Howard-Benham), when she is making her usual pantry delivery to her son's apartment.

With all four characters in place, you would think the outcome would be predictable, and it sometimes is, but there's a lot of fun and laughter along the way. Sherman's wit is fresh and his characters believable, which lifts it out of sitcom superficiality. As the two generations and genders get to know each other we grow to like them, with all their imperfections and their vulnerability.

The connection to the holidays isn't clear until Act 2, when we see that Charles's apartment is prepared for a Hannukah meal with his mom, and Isabel's for Christmas with her dad. Some of the best humor in the play comes from the juxtaposition of these two traditions and the innocent ignorance each pair has of the other's rituals. The apparent attraction between Charles and Isabel also hits a snag when Isabel's estranged husband calls to invite her out for dinner.

Without giving away the rest of the plot, the ultimate message is a lovely one of hope and possibility, as well as the joy of finding love in unexpected places. Sherman encourages us not to analyze that love too much -- not to question or pick it apart, but simply accept it as the wondrous gift. It's a message that's pretty appropriate for the holiday season, for lifting your hearts up out of the pervasive commercialism.

All four actors are well-known on local stages, for good reason -- they're all excellent, bringing interesting and intriguing shading to their characters. Benham as the Jewish mother hits just the right notes of motherliness mingled with independence and a delightful flair for vivacity. Her mischievous "What the hey!" could very well become the new "Carpe diem." Her counterpart, Fischer, sets the upbeat tone for the play as the indefatigable and irrepressible George. He's dapper and debonair one moment, silly at Scrabble the next, with a genuine joie de vivre.

Alexander and Byrd face off as two lovable losers, each wounded in love and reluctant to take another leap, each charmingly idiosyncratic and flawed. Alexander transitions nicely from stupidly suicidal to ready for romance without stretching believability. Her comical expressions enhance the text.

Byrd plays against type to deliver a sweet, music-obsessed nerd, who manages to rise above his shyness and fear to reach out for change and the unknown. Byrd's mastery of subtle looks and comic timing add depth to the character.

Ron Gasparinetti's realistic set gives us the two apartments side by side in faithful detail. All the other production elements come together commendably, often providing visual humor. Director Linda Piccone ably leads her team through territory that could be sappy if overplayed, giving us tartare instead of turkey.

Altogether an enjoyable and amusing evening, guaranteed to laugh away any holiday doldrums.


What: "Romance in D," a play for the holidays by James Sherman, presented by Bus Barn Stage Company


Where: At the Bus Barn Theatre at 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos


When: Through Dec. 17, with 8 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday Dec. 14, and 3:00 p.m. matinees on Sundays Nov. 27 and Dec. 4


Cost: Tickets range from $22 to $28.


Info: Call (650) 941-0551 or go to www.busbarn.org.


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