Shem Bitterman’s new play, The Stone Witch, is making it’s New York premiere at the Westside Theatre with an absolutely gorgeous production. Which may be better than the play. It’s not that the play is bad. It’s not, it’s charming. It’s just that the collaboration between Yael Pardess, who designed the set and did the drawings for Projection Designer Brad Peterson, Lighting Designer Betsy Adams, Sound Designer Christopher Cronin and Music Composer Roger Bellon is so stunning that the play didn’t quite deliver the promise of the visuals.
Simon Grindberg (Dan Lauria) is the world’s most celebrated children’s book author and illustrator. But his next book is 12 years overdue. His editor, Clair Forlorni (Carolyn McCormick), hires young hopeful Peter Chandler (Rupak Ginn) to act as an assistant to “The Great Man.” The brief to Peter being that he is to inspire/nudge Simon into delivering an original 300 word book with illustrations by September 1st so they can have it out by Christmas.
So Peter makes the 2 hour trek to Simon’s hideaway in the country to beard the irascible Great Man in his woodland studio. There to meet his idol and try and discover why he cannot work. And try and get him to do so. All with his own creation in his pocket, and his own hopes and dreams tied up in it. Needless to say, things don’t go according to anyone’s plan.
And it is in this studio where the rest of the play takes place and the production team has outdone themselves. It's a big one-room cabin with well-worn furniture. Giant Sendak-like drawings of creatures hang from the rafters. There's a wall of screened-in windows in the back through which you can see trees rustling in the breeze, bears ambling by, flights of birds flying overhead, and see and hear anyone coming down the path. And when Simon starts to draw, the sketches appear on the windows behind him, line by line. And when his imagination overtakes him and the stuff of his nightmares start to manifest themselves to him, they boil up out of his mind onto the screens in vivid drawings.
The Stone Witch is a fairy tale. With touches of The Wizard of Oz thrown in for good measure. But I get the feeling that there have been too many rewrites of this play and a thread has been lost. At some point Mr. Bitterman has tried to explain Simon’s creative block with mental illness, alcoholism, WWII PTSD and Nazis, and remnants of these issues remain and confuse the issue. It’s a fairy tale, there’s magic. We can see it clearly on the screens behind him and we’re perfectly satisfied with that explanation. The rest is a red herring that gets in the way and confuses us. He’s an artist and a lonely old man, terrified of his own success and it has taken hold of his imagination and blocked him.
The cast is first rate. Carolyn McCormick is the perfect ice queen publishing princess who can turn on the charm one minute and become a piranha the next. Rupak Ginn does a fine job of portraying a young artist walking on the sword’s edge of doubt and self-esteem in front of his hero. And Dan Lauria is masterful at taking the confusing character of Simon Grundberg as written, and turning him into a real live flesh-and-blood human being we care about and have sympathy for. And he has wonderful timing and delivery, and a commanding presence.
(Photo by Russ Rowland)
What the popular press says...
"When doing something other than wrestling with ghosts, Lauria is mercurial, bullying and entertaining in the way that the most brilliant person in your life always is. In such moments, one can see why Peter and Clair put up with this tyrant. If only the lucidity lingered longer."
Juan Michael Porter II for Time Out New York
External links to full reviews from popular press...