EXERCISE CLASS The cast of Circle Mirror Transformation.
It could be called the water cooler effect: casual contacts among unlike people, repeated often enough, can lead to unlikely friendships. Annie Baker titled her play Circle Mirror Transformation after an acting workshop exercise, but the result is the same: the kind of bonding that makes you feel a little optimistic about our fractious species.
The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre is staging the Obie Award-winner (for best new American play) through October 9.
The premise is worthy but the particular setting and dramatic approach are problematic. We are observing six weeks of adult education acting workshops in a small Vermont town, with all the occasional tedium and shaky instruction that suggests.
That allows for humor but doesn't permit the brisk pace of which scintillating plays are made. The tradeoff for verisimilitude and low-key expectations is a theatrical EKG with few peaks.
Therefore, more than with most plays, Circle Mirror Transformation demands first-rate actors. Do not try this play at home, or on your community theater stage, despite the everyman characters. Fortunately, the gang at the Gamm is the best. Under the direction of Rachel Walshe, every nuance and spark of potential emotional energy of the play is tapped.
Assembled are a woman who recently moved to town and wants to meet people, a sullen 16-year-old girl who dreams of being an actress, a divorced man who works as a carpenter and wants to expand his interests, the director of the community center that is holding the class, and the wife of the latter, who is instructing them all.
Playwright Baker is a brave and sturdy soul. She had the opportunity to reveal them and their developing relationships by having them act out scenes, which would also pique our interest by providing more, well, drama. Nope. We get exercises such as a recurring one that has them lying on the floor and counting out randomly. The most exciting it gets is when they're chasing each other, making rude animal sounds.
We know that things are going to get dicey with pretty Theresa (Karen Carpenter), who is not over breaking up with an abusive boyfriend, with all the lack of self-confidence that implies. Smitten with her is lonely Schultz (Norman Beauregard, who usually settles for being the Gamm's fight choreographer, but here demonstrates admirable acting chops). When Theresa, after Schultz has been kind to her, asks him out for coffee, he is so stunned that he thinks he has said yes when he's only been staring blankly.
Details accrue like layers of lacquer, until each character is polished to a sheen. That Theresa relies on getting by on her looks is evident when she displays pride in her hula hoop proficiency, as though she were a triathlete. After lessons from her, 55-year-old James (Jim O'Brien) gets overly excited — "I'm hooping!" — in the age-old tradition of older men trying to impress younger women.
James's wife, Marty (Wendy Overly), is the instructor in this weekly emotional peep show. Between bubbly stretches of her can-do pep, we sometimes catch her slouching, since her secret baseline mood is far less optimistic. "I hope someday I'll stop being so hard on myself," she eventually admits.