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Play Review: Olympia Dukakis returns to Williamstown

A review of Michael Tremblay's "For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again" as produced by Williamstown.

I wonder if Olympia Dukakis has been nursing a secret desire to do stand-up comedy. If so, the non-play "For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again" comes pretty close. Dukakis specializes in "ethnics," as she likes to put it. As often as not, they're expansive, entertaining, in-your-face ladies who wear their eccentricities like Saturday night rhinestones. Here, she's a Montreal matron, a compulsive storyteller who turns anecdotes into epics -- endlessly embroidering any topic, she says, to keep from boring herself to death.

"For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again" has been described, accurately, as French-Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay's "unabashed love letter to his mother." Like most love letters, it's indiscriminate and self-indulgent. The playwright puts himself onstage, in an empty theater with a ghost light glowing in front of a bare brick wall. He warns us that tonight won't be a great crescendo of drama -- no Shakespeare, Sophocles or Ibsen -- just a fond resurrection in memory of his dear departed mother, who, he says, he's bringing onto the stage for "the pleasure of seeing her again, so she could make me laugh and cry, one more time."

The woman who appears is wonderfully entertaining -- for a little while. It appears that Tremblay's mother would never settle for a simple statement if she could improvise half a dozen changes on it. Again and again, it's as if she's trying out her act in the living room to see which variation gets the best laugh. That redundancy may be true to life, but it gets very old very quickly in a play. Dukakis attacks the role with feisty energy and flawless comic timing, but she's constantly undermined by the overblown script.

Marco Barricelli is wildly miscast as the playwright's onstage surrogate. He's a big man -- movie-epic size -- but for half the show he's playing a small boy. His function in the piece is mainly to listen raptly to the mother's rap. In fact, he's seated in a chair center stage almost constantly. He's her audience, just as we are. But this misguided concept makes for cramped, two-dimensional blocking, and Dukakis spends much of her time awkwardly leaning over to talk to him.

A director, Carey Perloff, is credited in the program, but there’s little evidence of a guiding hand. It's also hard to believe that Willliamstown's production is not the first for this non-play (it premiered at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where Perloff is artistic director). At the final preview I caught, the star was unsure of some of her lines and the pacing was wildly uneven.

The evening is essentially five monologues the mother delivers to her son as he grows from age 10 to 20. The first is a lecture when he's brought home by a policeman after harassing traffic with some other boys, and she spins it into fantasies of gruesome death and long prison terms. The last scene finds her dying of stomach cancer, and here Dukakis displays her dramatic power, raging against the dying of the light. The show ends with a lovely image, when the playwright treats his stage-mother to a colorfully theatrical exit into heaven. But the playwright simply doesn't earn that ending, and it comes off as a rather desperate climax

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