‘Apples & Oranges’ at the Alliance Theatre
Whether it was opening night jitters or the actors were just presenting a formal rehearsal, I couldn’t say. But I can predict this: the production of “Apples & Oranges” premiering at the Alliance Theatre should put a lot more work into it if it plans on running in New York.
Adapted from Vanity Fair writer Marie Brenner’s memoir “Apples & Oranges” about her estranged relationship with her brother and sole sibling, Carl Brenner (Tony Carlin), this two-person play becomes a series of short scenes between the two. Marie, a successful writer for Vanity Fair, and Carl, a prolific and successful apple farmer, have been estranged their whole lives. After being diagnosed with cancer and having no living parents, he tries to reconnect with Marie, who lives on the other side of the country. They meet and bicker everywhere: on the phone, at restaurants, in apple orchards, in China, and in automobiles as they forever try to connect but rarely do.
The play moves along swiftly but leaves out some of the important history in the book: namely, that this sibling estrangement goes back two generations when their grandparents came to the United States, when her father’s siblings became estranged from one another, and when his sister was disinherited by their parents. It also leaves out that Marie and Carl mark the third generation of Brenner trail blazers who left their heritage and moved far away from their families. That information, which includes a great grandfather who was a farmer, and an aunt, a writer in the early 1900s who moved to Mexico and New York, brings insight into the family history. These details (and lots more juicy tales) bring Brenner’s page-turner memoir full circle. The lack of them makes this a series of short scenes (under 1 ½ hours with no intermission) of sibling rivalry.
The staging is just right as Carl and Marie (Patricia Richardson of “Home Improvement”) perform on an empty stage with only two stools that come together and move apart as they speak on the phone, drive in an orchard or have breakfast at a counter in a diner. This play doesn’t need any scenery as all that really matters is the heart-felt connection between the two. Whether it’s love, hate or indifference, this play is about the raw emotion these two feel for each other. But sadly, that was lacking opening night.
While Carl’s anger seemed to be real at times, Marie’s did not. Richardson rarely showed true raw emotions, neither anger nor sadness. Watching her on stage was like watching a TV sitcom character who gets “mad” or “sad” but never displays true heartfelt feelings. Richardson brings loud words, but nothing seems to happen to her deep internally. Even when Carl shares the latest bad news of his illness and Marie buries her face in her hands as if she is crying, the sadness shown on her face and voice is shallow. The audience needed to see it. We needed to feel it.
While Carlin did show true emotion, he had his weaknesses too. He stumbled over words. But what was most bothersome was the continual twitching and flinching of his fingers. When his left arm hung down by his side, the fingers would continually curl and relax, they’d rub together like some nervous twitch, and they’d open and close like they were a talking puppet that silently cried, “I’m nervous, I’m nervous.” To be fair to him, he had a week’s less time to rehearse as originally someone else had been cast in his role.
The play “Apples & Oranges” by Alfred Uhry was disappointing even to those in the audience who had not read the book. Uhry wrote “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” and co-wrote “Mystic Pizza,” and I liked them all. He’s won an Academy Award, a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for his writing. But I don’t think he’s going to win anything for this unless changes are made. Luckily, the play is previewing here and the script and acting could be repaired before it attempts to open elsewhere.
Directed by Lynne Meadow, “Apples & Oranges” runs through Oct. 28 on the Hertz Stage at the Alliance Theatre.