Untitled Theater Company No. 61 defines itself (per website) as a “Theater of Ideas: scientific, political, philosophical, and above all theatrical.”
UTC61’s current production of Doctors Jane and Alexander, written and directed by Edward Einhorn, certainly qualifies under the “scientific” category, since the play is described to be about the playwright’s own grandfather, Alexander Wiener, who discovered the RH factor in blood.
Now if a person were to imagine this play’s subject to be solely about bloodborne science then one might opt to choose an evening of historical dramas on Netflix instead. Fortunately, the piece is about more than RH factors, even if it doesn’t completely spare its audience some of the dry, lid-lowering facts about the red stuff that flows through the veins.
As the audience is seated, it takes in the warm, inviting and well-balanced stage design by Mike Mroch, lit pointedly and purposefully by lighting designer Federico Restrepo. Suspended wall panels contain artwork, a violin, and bits of costuming and props which will be referred to or used throughout the performance by way of Einhorn’s deft staging.
Already on stage are Jane (Alyssa Simon), seated in a wheelchair, examining her fingers and lost in her own world. The specter of father Alexander (Len Rella), aka Dr. Alexander Weiner (discoverer of the RH factor), sits at the piano, and Edward (Max Wolkowitz), son and grandson, types madly on his computer.
Edward begins the play by setting the scene as an interview with his mother Jane in her assisted living residence a few months after her stroke. As we get to know her, a one-time professor and artist now weaving in and out of dementia, we learn more about her father Alexander, the scientist and pianist, as well as her son, the narrator and playwright Edward yearning to make a difference in the shadow of his elders. These elders are, of course, his grandfather and mother, but also his older, successful lawyer brother David (Maxwell Zener), who comes in and out of the play with equal reluctance and insistence, making sure it’s being written as it should be.
Einhorn’s script, at times a play-within-a-play, cleverly exists on multiple planes:
–The “real” present, between Edward, his brother David and other characters as the play we’re witnessing is being written or taking place
–The theatrical present, where he’s interviewing his mother, Jane
–The theatrical past, where stories from Edward, Jane or Alexander’s younger days provide background to the theatrical present
The costumes by Ramona Ponce support every attribute of the characters without drawing undue attention to their purpose, a perfect balance.
Actors Craig Anderson, Yvonne Roen and Ann Marie Yoo make fine work of playing multiple characters in brief moments throughout the play, smoothly transitioning without distracting.
The role of Alexander is played with verisimilitude by Rella, although the part rarely asks for more than some historic and scientific background information. His part contributes less than one would expect from a titular character.
Zener in the role of David is also ably-played, but his part calls for little more than some humor and exposition. By far the meat of the story and characterization falls to the roles of Edward and Jane.
As Edward, Wolkowitz captures the passion, emotion and drive that consume most young people with big dreams. His determination to make a difference in his world as an artist is keenly felt. He stubbornly hangs onto the insistent notion that the lives of his mother and grandfather have been of significance, even as his mother is disappearing before him and his grandfather’s memory is already relegated to some dusty books few people will want to read. Edward is flummoxed by his mother’s ambivalence over her past in deference to her present, where she sees little else but her ultimate death. Edward just cannot absorb a reality where a person can be born, live and eventually die without having made some notable contribution to the world…a contribution that doesn’t last beyond their children’s memories.
Simon gives a fully-dimensional, vulnerable, honest, and affecting performance as Jane. Her transitions between momentary awareness and mental vacancy are real and touching, and surprisingly funny at times. Anyone who has seen an elderly loved one slowly disappear into dementia will recognize that experience in Simon’s portrayal, which is never overplayed, and be genuinely moved by it.
Additional credit can be given to Simon and Wolkowitz’s performances by the excellent supporting cast and Einhorn’s writing. The script’s one weakness appears to be an insistence on providing an overabundance of mind-numbing facts about blood-type science, details which ultimately don’t lend themselves to the overarching tale of one man’s search for value and importance in his dreams, those of his family that came before him, and the question of whether he will leave anything other than a legacy of his children’s memories.
Doctors Jane and Alexander (through February 15, 2020)
Untitled Theater Company No. 61
HERE, 145 Sixth Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.untitledtheater.com/
Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission