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Upon a Time

An Immigrant Family Loses its Roots in FPCT’s Deft Everett Beekin

ENDLESS LOVE: Sarah Levin and Chris Krysztoflak play a pair of lovers, past and future, in Everett Beekin.

By John Barry | Posted 3/30/2005

Everett Beekin By Richard Greenberg

At Fells Point Corner Theatre through April 17

“Don’t be related to nobody.” Those are the words of advice from Ma (Margery Germain), the seventysomething immigrant Jew in Richard Greenberg’s Everett Beekin. For an immigrant family crammed into an apartment in New York’s Lower East Side, where even conceiving children is a public event, that may be wishful thinking. But as the play begins it’s 1947, and after a couple of decades of hard work that dream may just be around the corner.

The opening act is a fast-paced, well-acted comedy. The two married older sisters, Anna (Holly Pasciullo) and Sophie (Amy Jo Shapiro) are yapping about bankruptcy, nervous breakdowns, moving to the suburbs, or anything else that comes their way. Ma is washing dollar bills to clean off all the infecting germs and hanging them above the sink to dry. Unmarried daughter Miri (Sarah Levin) is cloistered in her room with the flu. Her hapless suitor, Jimmy (Chris Krysztoflak), is gamely trying to get an audience with Miri, but her mother is determined to stop her daughter from marrying a “Shabbos Goy.”

Half a century and one generation later, but with the same actors in different roles, we’re in Orange County, Calif. Nell, Anna’s daughter, also played by Holly Pasciullo, is soaking up the rays on the beach. If there’s any connection with the old country, it’s pretty tenuous. Bee (Mark Steckbeck) is a mellow, middle-aged businessman who drinks martinis and eschews irony. Nell’s daughter Laurel (Sarah Levin) is about to get married to Bee’s son Ev (Chris Krysztoflak). The world has turned into a strange admixture of clueless Gen Xers and pot-smoking, aging, divorced baby boomers whose sense of history doesn’t extend far beyond the construction of the neighborhood shopping mall.

The Everett Beekin in this play is the X factor—a person who never quite appears, but who seems to somehow be at the root of this massive dislocation. At the beginning, he’s referred to as a pioneer in the pharmaceutical industry who is about to turn Orange County into a boom town. Playwright Greenberg turns him into a mysterious Godot-like figure at the center of this strange, shallow world. That’s where the play changes gears from a run-of-the-mill assembly of generational stereotypes to a strange, even spooky, meditation on a half-century of dizzying progress and its attendant rootlessness.

Director Steve Goldklang is left with the challenge of a fast-paced play that requires split-second comic timing. The first act certainly keeps that up—the machine-gun dialogue between Anna and Sophie barely stops for breath, leaving us with little to grab on to except punch lines; Pasciullo and Shapiro keep up the pace well here with their witty repartee. The second act, though, is more meditative and moody, injected with long monologues and changes of scenery. In her second incarnation as Celia, the New York sister who’s come to witness her niece’s wedding, Amy Jo Shapiro’s character injects an intensity and sharp wit that keeps the second act alive. Margery Germain, meanwhile, makes the improbable transformation from a Jewish grandmother to a sullen, aging waitress very convincing. The other characters are funny but seem a little dazed by the slow swell of the Pacific: It makes for an amusing contrast, but the tension could be ratcheted up a bit without necessarily losing the rhythm.

Greenberg is obviously fascinated by stereotypes, and they seem to serve his ultimate purpose—to create a disjunctive, ahistorical world where people are hard-pressed to hold on to their identities. But the approach has its flaws. His 1947 New York is far more convincing than his late-’90s Southern California. If it weren’t for the program notes, the second act would be difficult to place. Reducing modern-day California to suntanning, cocktails, and shopping-mall tours is an old comic trick that wears out very quickly.

Everett Beekin has its awkward moments, but this production tackles them willingly, and at the end the general tone of the story is much more fascinating than its parts. In a thoughtfully written comedy about disorientation and rootlessness, that final perspective is worth the play’s imperfections.

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