Los Angeles Theater Review: BE A GOOD LITTLE WIDOW (NoHo Arts Center in North Hollywood)

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by Tony Frankel on April 22, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

UNBEREAVABLE

Bekah Brunstetter’s Be a Good Little Widow is awash with structural issues (ambiguous timeline, disconnected scenes), trite themes and relationships, and a refusal to penetrate into the characters. Why, then, have prominent companies Collaboraction in Chicago, Ars Nova in New York, Old Globe in San Diego, and now NoHo Arts Center decided to produce this tragicomedy? The ingredients: Love, death, marriage, mother-in-law, grieving, loss, cutesiness, quirky dialogue, and a schmaltzy dénouement.

At first, I found myself amused by young couple Craig and Melody, who have just finished setting up their new Connecticut home. I was curious about Craig’s widow-mother Hope, who disapproves of the facetious new wife. I liked the adorable loser office assistant Brad, who develops an insta-crush on Melody when he stops by to retrieve some info off of Craig’s laptop.

Larisa Oleynik and Caroline Aaron star in the L.A. Premiere of BE A GOOD LITTLE WIDOW by Bekah Brunstetter and directed by Sara Botsford at the NoHo Arts Center in North Hollywood.At first, I actually enjoyed the character of offbeat Melody. She’s both sweetly and annoyingly off the spectrum, and her idiosyncratic dialogue elicited a mix of empathy and scorn, even as many of her flippant laugh lines seemed peculiar and out of character (right off the bat, she tells Craig, “Sometimes I kiss you and your mouth is all small and tight, and it’s kind of like I’m trying to make out with a butthole”). Brunstetter creates credible nascent, nuptial behavior—you know, when a partner is boundlessly captivating and you lose yourself in the process—while serving up a delicious disconnection right below the surface.

Larisa Oleynik and Donovan Patton star in the L.A. Premiere of BE A GOOD LITTLE WIDOW by Bekah Brunstetter and directed by Sara Botsford at the NoHo Arts Center in North Hollywood.At first, I was intrigued when Craig is killed in a plane crash (no spoilers here—look at the title), and Melody is thrown into a cauldron of grief management and funeral planning, prodded by Hope’s rigid decorum for widowhood.

But at last, for all its charm and occasional wistfulness, the play goes awry and becomes clunky: Melody’s journey of self-discovery is superficial; her strained relationship with Hope—patched up over a bowl of Skittles—is unbelievable; the heavily-explored synchronicity with Brad goes nowhere; and Hope’s ultimate change of attitude, prompted by Craig’s deus ex machina appearance in a window, is not only yucky, it’s undeserved—even as it may cause a lump in your throat.

Caroline Aaron, Trey McCurley and Larisa Oleynik star in the L.A. Premiere of BE A GOOD LITTLE WIDOW by Bekah Brunstetter and directed by Sara Botsford at the NoHo Arts Center in North Hollywood.The reason I was willing to forego doubts about the script was the unanimously fascinating actors. As Melody, Larisa Oleynik captures the contradictions, doubts, boredom, and joyous mania of a troubled woman fighting to bring her life into balance. Charming Donovan Patton takes the one-note part of Craig and offers a sympathetic portrayal of a man torn between career, wife, and mother. Eye-candy Trey McCurley offers an unpretentious, naturalistic, boyish sweetness to Brad that allows us to empathize with the lost slacker who doesn’t know what he wants except to do the right thing; when Brad tries desperately to connect with Melody in an unpoetic manner, it almost breaks your heart. With her husky and distinctive voice and bold mannerisms, Caroline Aaron is always magnetic to behold, but she is unfortunately miscast. Aaron can pull off tyrannical, judgmental, and bitchy in her sleep, but Hope comes off more as a pushy Bar Mitzvah party planner than as a WASPy, waspish Ice Queen.

Caroline Aaron and Larisa Oleynik star in the L.A. Premiere of BE A GOOD LITTLE WIDOW by Bekah Brunstetter and directed by Sara Botsford at the NoHo Arts Center in North Hollywood.Any life the cast brought to this simplistic treatment of relationships and bereavement was asphyxiated by Sara Botsford’s stifling and static direction. Not only were scene changes long (there’s nothing like staring at an empty lit stage to bring you out of a play) but actors stood in face-offs for such interminably long periods that I was tempted to wad up my program and throw it on the stage to get them to move. When Hope has a long monologue ordering food from a caterer, Botsford ensured that we learned nothing more about her than that she has a persnickety nature.

At first, I was rendered impressionable because Brunstetter’s script can be funny, and major caveats aside, it is also unconventional, fresh, and perceptive; it opened a window into the transient nature of relationships, and my mind wandered to the perilous thought of losing my own lover. The reality of unwieldy dramaturgy and stagnant direction soon settled in, however, reminding me of the time I was at Ground Zero looking at photos of 9/11 victims when an aggressive panhandler broke my introspection by demanding, “Give me a quarter or I’ll touch you.”

photos by Andrew Pagana

Be a Good Little Widow
49TH Parallel
in association with NoHo Arts Center Ensemble (NoHo ACE)
NoHo Arts Center
11136 Magnolia Blvd. in North Hollywood
scheduled to end on May 25, 2014
for tickets, call 323-388-3874
or visit www.beagoodlittlewidow.brownpapertickets.com
for more info, visit www.thenohoartscenter.com

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