Two-character plays don’t get much more entertaining or ultimately moving than Joanna McClelland Glass’s Trying, a humungous hit for the Colony Theatre back in 2007. Now, seven years later, the same lightning could easily strike for Long Beach’s International City Theatre with performances as memorable as those being given by Tony Abatemarco and Paige Lindsey White on the ICT stage.
Playwright Glass based her award-wining 2004 dramedy on her own real-life experiences as secretary to former U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle in the late 1960s, by which time the onetime jurist had become a cranky old man of 81 with his life of great achievements behind him. (Besides being Roosevelt’s A.G., he was also Chief American Judge at the Nuremberg Trials.) In fact, Biddle foresaw with surprising prescience that this was to be his last year on earth. “I’m in the process of leaving my life,” he frequently declares. “The exit sign is flashing over the door.”
Sarah Schorr, Glass’s fictional alter ego, arrives to replace Biddle’s previous secretary (was she fired or did she quit?), only to find one of the most irascible—yet ultimately loveable—stage characters in memory.
A stickler for grammar, Biddle bristles when Sarah calls herself a voracious reader. (The word should be “voluminous,” as any nitwit ought to know.) This type of mistake, or using “bring” in place of “take” or (heaven forbid!) splitting infinitives, are what Biddle calls again and again“a thorn in my side,” and for a while it appears that Sarah will be nothing more than just another thorn.
An early exchange between the two characters explains the play’s title, Biddle commenting to Sarah that “We can’t help but find each other extremely trying,” and Sarah responding, “I made a promise. I promised Mrs. Biddle that I’d try.” Doing just that, Sarah tries and tries and tries again to put up with the former jurist’s trying grouchiness until, in a great turnaround, she finally stands up for herself … and Trying catches fire.
For an “odd couple” play like Trying to truly work (oops, I’ve just split an infinitive), the characters must undergo change, and watching these two opposites come to respect, understand, and even love each other is one of the joys of Glass’s fact-based story.
John Henry Davis directs for ICT with assuredness and subtlety, and the performances he has elicited from Trying’s two stars are, simply put, as good as it gets, beginning with a quite possibly career-best turn by Abatemarco.
If versatility and the ability to vanish inside a character’s skin are two marks of a great actor, then Abatemarco reveals just such greatness in his portrayal of Judge Biddle. The proverbial Grumpy Old Man, Biddle was also a complex gentleman of intellect and refinement, a man who could be as stubborn as a mule yet still be capable of change, a man of wealth and social position whose empathy for the downtrodden led to his decision to change his political affiliation from Republican to Democrat, and in a performance as night-and-day different from his Scenie-winning turn as earthy force-of-nature artist Mark Rothko in last year’s Red, Abatemarco replicates Judge Biddle’s gradual transformation from still somewhat sprightly senior citizen to near invalid with an award-worthy mix of brilliance and power.
White’s return to ICT following her Best Actress Scenie-winning performance in 2012’s Ghost-Writer is a memorable one as well, riveting work that reveals layers of loveliness, intelligence, and spunk. Sarah’s changes over the year of her employment may be less visible than Biddle’s (all right, she does get pregnant, and by the end of the play is definitely showing). Still, with White confidently inhabiting Sarah’s prim-and-proper skin, there is abundant satisfaction in witnessing the young newlywed’s transformation from mouse to lioness as Sarah gains in strength and self-confidence, ultimately becoming more than a match for her cantankerous boss.
ICT resident scenic designer JR Bruce does some of his finest work to date, recreating the minutia of Biddle’s Georgetown office, mountains of read and reread books providing a graphic illustration of the jurist’s decades of scholarship, with resident properties designers Patty, Gordon, and Christopher Briles filling in the blanks with the minutiae of assorted 1960s paraphernalia—typewriters, rotary phones, and even a 60s Dictaphone. (Remember those?) Lighting designer Donna Ruzika illuminates Bruce’s set with infinite grace, resident costume designer Kim DeShazo gives each character a series of just-right outfits that take us back in time, as do resident designer Anthony Gagliardi’s hair and wig designs, and resident sound designer Dave Mickey gives us a series of carefully detailed effects.
Trying is produced by ICT artistic director caryn desai. Rachel Berney Needleman is assistant director. Molly McGraw is production stage manager and Chole Haack assistant stage manager. Casting is by resident casting director Michael Donovan, CSA. Richie Ferris is casting assistant.
Rarely has a play demonstrated the onstage electricity a mere two actors can generate than Joanna McClelland Glass’s Trying. Whether you are eighteen or eighty, whether you remember the 1960s or have only read about them in a history book, International City Theatre has got quite a show for you.
International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.
August 22, 2014
Photos: Suzanne Mapes