Be a Good Little Widow

by Les Spindle

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday April 21, 2014

Caroline Aaron, Trey McCurley and Larisa Oleynik
Caroline Aaron, Trey McCurley and Larisa Oleynik  (Source:Andrew Pagana)

Gracefully segueing from what initially seems like a breezy romantic comedy to a thoughtful and heart-wrenching portrait of grief, family dynamics, and life's unpredictable twists and turns, Bekah Brunstetter's 2011 Off-Off-Broadway play "Be a Good Little Widow" shines in its L.A. debut.

The West Coast premiere of this absorbing 90-minute play occurred last year at the Old Globe in San Diego. Under the taut and graceful direction of Sara Botsford, this pitch-perfect rendition at the compact second-stage space at the NoHo Arts Center proves to be a subtly profound experience.

At first glance, the interactions between two attractive young newlyweds in Connecticut, in which the outspoken widowed mother of the groom is about to pay a visit, could easily evoke memories of Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park," though this judgmental matriarch could also have wandered in from "Butterflies are Free."

Melody (Larisa Oleynik) seems a tad too anxious to please her spouse Craig (Donovan Patton) and mother-in-law Hope (Caroline Aaron), and it's clear she's very green at the grown-up world of marital responsibility and domestic management.

Subtle but palpable tension is evident beneath the sitcom sheen of the early scenes, which is particularly sharpened under Aaron's superb depiction of this mommie dearest's passive-aggressive fake pleasantries and barely veiled insults. Eventually, the dramatic ante is upped with a startling plot twist that is evident from the play's title.

Corporate lawyer Craig is a diehard workaholic, more attentive to his cell phone than to his doting, dutiful wife, though he clearly cares about her too. Patton radiates the requisite good-guy likability of his character, a straight-arrow yuppie who nonetheless seems unaware of the way he neglects his wife's emotional needs.

Adding to the polish of Bostsford's tasteful production are Lacey Anzelc's evocative and attractive set design and Dan Weingarten's ambient and textured lighting effects.

When tragedy strikes out of the blue as Craig is flying home from a business trip, Melody at first seems shell-shocked. Then comes the inevitable clash of wills between Melody and Hope, who each has ideas about the way one grieves, even though their accustomed rule-books are throwing each of them for a loop in this instance.

From food to be served at the post-funeral reception to the way one does -- or does not -- hold on to composure under these circumstances, the differences between these highly dissimilar women prompt each of them to reluctantly learn from one another.

As the two actresses share the bulk of the scenes and dialogue, the play becomes a strong and affecting portrait of two women struggling to hold on to their comfort-zones in life, while opening their minds and hearts to the things we can learn from others.

Earning our empathy as a character written with a bit less dimension than the others, Patton is credible, amusing, charming and touching, adding to the superb interplay that is a hallmark of this production. An amusing and intriguing supporting character is Brad, the right-hand man of attorney Craig, who shares a sizzling flirtation with Melody, both before and after the tragedy occurs. Trey McCurley scores a funny and subtly moving characterization in this role.

Adding to the polish of Botsford's tasteful production are Lacey Anzelc's evocative and attractive set design and Dan Weingarten's ambient and textured lighting effects. This is among the year's finest local productions to date.

"Be a Good Little Widow" runs through May 25 at the NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. For tickets or information, call 323-388-3874 or visit www.beingagoodlittlewidow.brownpapertickets.com.