Dallas — The point where art and commerce intersect—this is the space playwright Theresa Rebeck most enjoys exploring, often a recurring theme in her works. The Novelist is about brilliant artists that have a tendency to hurtle themselves toward scorching collisions, and the debris they leave behind.
Rebeck enjoys success as a writer for television and film, and as a novelist, but her first love is for theater and actors. She has described herself as being very moved by the complexity of what actors do, and their willingness to go to great lengths for their characters. The serious actor besieged by commercialism is another prominent theme in her works, including this one. This regional premiere of The Novelist (originally produced as The Butterfly Collection) is a muscular choice for Theatre Three’s 55th season. It also serves as a showcase for two of the theater’s recent decisions.
With this production, T3 announces its partnership with the Deaf Action Center, providing certified interpreters for specified performances throughout the season. At the performance reviewed on Aug. 11, the interpreters were Deborah Martinez and Lyndsey Hyatt. Their presence for this expanded audience brought a different and refreshing energy to the evening.
This also marks the Theatre Three directorial debut for Gregory Lush, already a familiar face onstage to Dallas region audiences. Entrusting Lush with this play was a good decision. He has reason to be proud of the end product here, resulting from the intensely focused work of a winning cast.
We enter the home of Paul and Margaret in New England. Paul (Michael Muller) is a rude and condescending award-winning novelist experiencing a writer’s block. He lives alone with Margaret (Cindee Mayfield) on an impressive property that includes a guest house. Paul and Margaret have two adult sons, Ethan (Jeffrey Schmidt) and Frank (Ashley Wood). Ethan is a narcissistic actor living in New York City with his accommodating girlfriend Laurie (Jennifer Kuenzer). Introspective Frank owns and operates an antique shop. Paul frequently hires young female assistants to transfer his handwritten manuscripts into the computer. This new assistant is Sophie (Ashhlee Elizabeth Bashore). She is intelligent and capable of punching back when poked.
Muller delivers both the gruffness and the gameplay within Paul. Muller dishes moments of blustery snark with an occasional twinkle in his eye. It is a twinkle so fast that one questions whether it was ever really there, but it was. The exchanges between Paul and Ethan are caustic and draining. Muller and Schmidt pace their dialogue well, allowing that rhythm to set the temperature. They avoid what could be a pigeon-holing of their characters as merely whiny members from a privileged class. Schmidt digs in and uses the set purposefully, seemingly drawing energy from it.
Kuenzer is warming as Jennifer. She brings a soft radiance to her character. Lovely. The moments that pop most for Bashore are those with Muller and Schmidt, but her scene with Wood has nice colors. Frank is the introverted brother that gets lost in the noise of his father and brother. Wood plays this effectively. Sophie is more at ease with men than women, something that Bashore is finding ways to manipulate.
Cindee Mayfield’s work is quite extraordinary. She slowly peels back layers until it becomes clear that the power and strength of this family resides within her. It is difficult to not watch Mayfield, even when she is not the person we’re supposed to watch. Her performance was stellar.
Bruce R. Coleman’s set is exquisite. Most appreciated about his set design is the attention to details, the little things that can be overlooked when present but sorely missed if not there. Items are placed in a way that supports the brokenness of the characters. There are books of varying sizes, some that appear to be journals or monographs, some with the spines turned toward the wall while the rest of the books on the row are facing title out. Little things, but they add up and give meaning.
Simply stated, this is a thoughtful production. It is perfect for lovers of words and literature. Or for people who savor an evening of verbal sparring.