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Eric Uhlfelder

Axis Theatre brings to stage
Henry James’ "Washington Square"

Washington Square
March 1 thru April 1
Axis Theatre Company
212 807 9300
1 Sheraton Square
Reviewed by: Eric Uhlfelder

Britt Genelin,George Demas. Photo by Pavel Antonov.

Occasionally, one needs reminding just how remarkable our access is to theater in NY and how a serendipitous venture into an off- off-Broadway theater can turn into a fine evening.

On a cold mid-March Saturday, the same day I learned the Cherry Lane Theatre had closed down for good, I fortuitously wandered into Axis Theatre’s production of Henry James’ Washington Square—just blocks away from the actual park.

Some companies will attempt to have actors play multiple characters to help fully render a story. But a two-chair set and Randy Sharp’s stripped-down transcription of the 19th-century novel keeps our attention focused both on the four leading actors and their words. The set’s sharp contrasts between light and darkness reinforces that attention.

Unlike the period novel, Sharp’s concise dialogue comes often rapid-fire in this 85-minute production, initially accented by wonderful bits of slapstick, and characters spinning off in their respective directions. All this maintains our attention as we learn of a young woman trying to balance her search for a husband and her faithful love of her father.

Britt Genelin, Jon McCormick. Photo by Pavel Antonov.

Initially ditzy and naïve, Catherine (Britt Genelin) unknowingly finds herself following the same marital path as her eccentric Aunt Lavinia (Dee Pelletier) and her singularly focused father--a renowned New York City doctor (George Demas). While love may be desirable, even remembered, it doesn’t appear on stage, as we’re told practicality is above all.

The players argue and argue and argue all sides of the matter—the matter being Catherine’s evolving relationship with a familial stranger (Morris played by Jon McCormick) that everyone seems to know, except for young Catherine.

Running alongside the discord are wonderful insights. After learning that Catherine’s suitor has already squandered a small fortune, her father tells him directly: “You talk of doing things, but don’t.” And later he warns his daughter, “Nothing is besides you, but you don’t see it,” as it is “better to be unhappy for a few months than unhappy for a lifetime.”

Dee Pelletier, Britt Genelin. Photo by Pavel Antonov.

Like a shot-putter who finally launches the ball after many rotations, the story takes off to another level towards the end when we learn what Catherine’s father has been struggling in the long shadow cast by his wife’s death when Catherine was born. “I see nothing,” he exclaims, and “there’s nowhere to go.” Could he not see any part of his beloved wife in their daughter?

As the arc of her maturity suddenly accelerates, Catherine comes to realize she must ultimately be true to herself. She remembers thinking, when she wasn’t much younger, people were like her, thinking and feeling the same things but simply concealing this from her. She came to realize that was not the case. And that it’s “a great thing to be separated from someone you have loved . . . to see that they are not what you believed they were.”

As the protagonist, Britt Genelin does a wonderful job portraying the various facets of Catherine’s evolving character. “What we see in Catherine,” observes Robert Platt, a research librarian at NYU who attended the performance, “is the development of selfhood resulting from various forces buffeting her, resulting arguably in an early literary version of the modern woman.”

As Catherine’s father, George Demas does well in keeping true to his implacable character that refuses to see beyond his own certainty only to devolve into despair.

Though a hopeless and often silly romantic, Dee Pelletier plays her character in a delightful contrast to her more sensible brother.

For a young man trying to win over a woman’s wealth, Jon McCormick’s uncharismatic Morris feels out of sorts. Maybe he’s counting only on his youth and good looks. Or maybe the author and the playwright didn’t imbue him with much more than that.

But collectively, the cast brought compellingly to life a tale about how wealth is far from enough to bring about happiness or even contentment.

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