Riverside - To begin, I must say TURN OFF YOUR CELL PHONES, PEOPLE.
Not once, not twice, but three times was the Friday night performance of Apartment 3A at Riverside Theatre interrupted by the grating chimes of the wireless albatrosses.
I noticed the absence of any kind of curtain speech, and I think this may have contributed to the problem. I understand the desire to treat the audience like grown ups, but it seems that a personal reminder is still necessary. A small note on page four of the program did not suffice. But I digress.
If we ignore the fact that I was harangued by ring tones and somewhere in the evening I lost my wallet, the show itself provided for an entertaining night out. And that’s what you’re really wanting to know, after all.
I was skeptical about seeing a show written by Jeff Daniels. The same Jeff Daniels, I wondered, whose filmography includes such gems as Dumb and Dumber, Supersucker, and the soon-to-be released summer movie entitled Space Chimps? The guy on TV begging corporations to open branches in Michigan? It didn’t bode well.
Neither did the first 30 minutes or so of the show. I am not a fan of facial expressions and gestures that look overly planned and bigger than life unless I’m watching a full-blown farce that would call for such broad strokes. This was not such a script, and I found the overly choreographed body language distracting and off-putting. Combine this with a strangely written tirade about the many ways in which Big Bird might die, and I’m checking out for the evening.
I had pretty much given up; then something happened. The female lead, Annie (played by Elena Passarello), had lunch with an ardent and endearingly nerdy admirer, Elliott (played by Jim Kropa). Their conversation unexpectedly turned to a debate about God’s existence, and, suddenly, I could completely forget I was watching “Acting” and just relate to these people and their struggle for meaning in life. The script itself became less gimmicky and more character-driven, and Jim Kropa delivered a speech about Elliott losing his parents at an early age with such honesty and simplicity that it brought me to tears. Annie and Elliott shared a delightful kiss, then intermission.
I came back to the second act with my hopes raised, and I was not disappointed, which is good, because finding hope in a seemingly hopeless world was a major theme of the show. How ironic. Or maybe not. Jeff Daniels, perhaps you are cleverer than I thought.
In the second half of the show, we get to see the humanity behind Elliott’s nerdy glasses as he embarks with his true love on an emotional roller coaster. We also get to learn more about Annie’s motivations, hopes and fears. The characters are, overall, more real, more human and more interesting to watch.
Tim Budd (who plays Annie’s confidante, Donald) flawlessly delivers a moving speech about finding the talent to paint his beloved wife, an event he interprets as a miracle. This is one of many really nice moments in what is ultimately a romantic comedy with a bit of a twist.
The play soon reveals a somewhat transparent “surprise” ending, but it doesn’t matter if you see it coming or not. It hits you. By this time, the performances are engaging and the characters are compelling.
I set my hopes and my standards high for a Riverside show. And, at least in the end, these hopes were rewarded. This is an engaging production of what felt like a bit of an uneven script. And even if I left the theatre without my wallet that night, I did have a bit of a cry, some chuckles and a little food for thought.
A night at the theatre that can make you laugh, cry and ponder where it is in your life that you find hope is well worth the time. Cheers to Jeff Daniels and the folks at Riverside! Get your tickets soon because a few of the performances are already sold out.
And now, my own surprise ending: Riverside rescued my wallet. Thanks, Nan Martin!
Vicki Krajewski has acted and directed with theatre companies in Chicago and Iowa including the Prairie Center for the Arts, Sandcastle Productions, Dreamwell, Catalyst, Iowa City Community Theatre and City Circle. Several of her short plays and monologues have been produced in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. Along with her performance pieces, she does occasional newspaper reporting, freelance feature writing, technical writing, personal essays and even some poetry.