Peter Chandler (Ginn) is an unpublished children’s book writer struggling to make ends meet. When an aggressive and enterprising book editor, Clair Forlorni offers him a dream opportunity to help Simon Grindberg, the world’s most famous picture book author, not as a ghostwriter but as sounding board, finish his next book which is overdue 12 years, he jumps at the job. However, when he meets his hero, now a difficult, sick old man, he discovers it may come with a sacrifice: he has to offer Simon his title “The Stone Witch” for his own although Peter has worked on his book with this name for six years.
Working with Simon isn’t easy as he has become a world class procrastinator: they swim, play games, drink, go fishing and not a word gets written. Simon does teach Peter to value himself and never to compromise. Peter discovers Simon’s fears, memories, long held desires and his feelings about fans who would not leave him alone. And then Peter reveals that he has to go back to his New York City job and the temperature heats up.
Yael Paress’s clever setting (used for its three locales including Clair’s office) depicts a writing cabin (with a drawing board, desk, sofa, pictures, awards, children’s book illustrations (created by Pardess), huge animal reproductions of Simon’s creations, etc., a huge back wall of windows through which we can see the woods. However, in Brad Peterson’s projection design, the rear wall is also used to project eerie pictures from Simon and Peter’s imaginations like the Stone Witch and other drawings. The lighting design by Betsy Adams brings the various wind and rain storms that occur up close to the cabin. Mimi Maxmen’s costumes have the lived in look for the men’s outfits, while Clair’s dresses are designer dresses meant to be the armor of the successful modern career woman.
Lauria, best known for his work on The Wonder Years, makes Simon an immensely private and enigmatic figure. His erratic behavior changes by the moment, keeping Peter (and us) guessing. We are never certain whether he had incipient dementia or is faking or is suffering from malnutrition or dehydration living for so long in a cabin in the woods. This is a big performance and Lauria brings great authority to his role.
As the young artist hungry for fame and fortune, handsome newcomer Ginn (Raj on USA’s Royal Pains) makes Peter both personable and philosophical as we watch him wrestle with his ethics, his ambitions and his caring for the irascible Simon. The play to some extent is Peter’s rite of passage to becoming a real artist and Ginn delineates that journey with grace and charm. Carolyn McCormick (Dr. Olivet on Law & Order) lives up to the name that Simon has given her (“a barracuda in Armani”) and her timing is impeccable as she gets in all of her digs in the name of doing her job.
The art of creation is a difficult one to portray on stage but playwright Shem Bitterman and cast have done a beautiful job of dramatizing the highs and lows of this well-worn theme. Under the subtle direction of Steve Zuckerman, the additional theme of the mentor-pupil relationship is superbly depicted by Dan Lauria and Rupak Ginn. Carolyn McCormick brings a sense of both drollery and danger to her role as the high-powered agent who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. Not only are the performances riveting, but this is one of the few recent plays to be entirely satisfying.
The Stone Witch (through April 29, 2018)
Westside Theater, 407 W. 43rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.stonewitchplay.com
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission