It is May 1944 and Michael Crawler is a young, African-American military pilot and member of The Tuskegee Airmen. He’s been shot down over rural France. He awakes, confused bandaged in a bed that’s in the basement of a farmhouse.
Katrine Faustin is the indomitable, young French woman, who rescued him, hides him from the Germans and nurses him back to health. Born and bred in Harlem, New York, Michael is intelligent and idealistically believes that after the war, his service record will absolve him from racism in the U.S.
Katrine’s father and brother were slain, French Resistance fighters, and her mother has also died. Over the next three months, Katrine and Michael’s accidental involvement develops into a passionate love story.
Mr. Hagins has crafted an involving and affective take of a perennial scenario that captures the nostalgic essence of wartime films and plays of the past. There’s the spirit of Casablanca and echoes of The Voice of The Turtle and John Loves Mary, combined with the novelty of the interracial angle that’s tenderly realized.
The dialogue is a wonderful blend of lightheartedness and seriousness with a lot of mileage gotten from the characters initially speaking different languages.
A clever device that’s employed is the use of radio broadcasts of the time period that are heard throughout the show. These are derived from actual programs and impart factual information about the Allies’ progress during the war. The threat of the Germans discovering Michael is depicted by recorded sounds of soldiers conversing with Katrine, up above, inside of the house.
Most importantly, Hagins has created two strong roles for actors.
Possessed of a muscular physique, deep voice and animated presence, Anthony T. Goss is dynamic as Michael. Mr. Goss perfectly captures the character’s boyish innocence and growing maturity with his intense and detailed performance.
With her quirky manner, wide eyes, lithe physicality and flowing, curly hair, Alexandra Cohler is captivating as Katrine. Ms. Cohler melodious voice achieves all of the humor and pathos possible in the part, as she speaks in French and heavily accented English.
Cohler and Goss have a great sensual and romantic chemistry that’s frequently exhibited, especially when they jitterbug and are later in bed together.
As the unseen voice of the radio announcer, Ian Campbell Dunn marvelously and warmly replicates the cadences of such a figure of yesteryear with his breezy and stentorian delivery. Mr. Dunn becomes a welcome and engaging figure as the play goes along.
Besides guiding the young cast to their vivid characterizations, director Janet Bentley has also staged the play with visual variety and momentum. This is quite a challenge as it’s basically two people in a room, and Ms. Bentley has succeeded in making it absorbing.
Mary Baynard’s lively choreography enlivens what could have been a grim presentation as the characters delightfully enact dances of the period, visualizing their increasing emotional closeness.
The assemblage of wooden beams and old furniture that scenic designer You-Shin Chen has masterfully configured realistically represents the contained and immersive basement.
Smoky, shadowy dimness, with illumination by light bulbs hanging from the ceiling are the chief components of “Lucky” Gilbert Pearto’s arresting lighting design. Mr. Pearto’s efforts add a compelling dimension to the production and scene transitions occur with crisp blackouts.
Gunfire, recordings of old songs and the recreations of newscasts are all adeptly rendered by Andy Evan Cohen jolting sound design.
Janet Mervin’s authentically vintage costume design includes Katrine’s rustic outfits, Michael’s various bandages and his uniform.
“I’ve worked on Basement for 20 years, adding new scenes and creating different endings,” writes Hagins in his program notes on the website of Roly Poly Productions, who have presented the show. He has arguably over thought his play as it contains a lamentable detour.
About 90 minutes into it, Basement appears to be reaching a simple, satisfying and slightly ambiguous conclusion. However, Hagins adds another 20 minutes. This extension features an overly suspenseful plot twist out of a lesser, 1940’s Hollywood movie. The digression mars but doesn’t obliterate the play’s considerable accomplishments.
Basement (through October 15, 2017)
Roly Poly Productions
The Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 1-800-838-3006 or visit http://www.rolypolyproductions.com
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes with no intermission