|L-R: Katharine Cullinson, Austin Pendleton, and Richard McElvain in PLAYING SINATRA at Theater For The New City. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.|
Bernard Kops, an 87 year old immensely talented and prolific playwright, has written more than 40 plays for stage and radio, nine novels and six volumes of poetry. Despite his well-deserved European recognition, to date few of his plays have been produced in the United States. Fortunately, that oversight is now in the process of being at least partially corrected: his Playing Sinatra, which originally opened to rave reviews in London in1991, is finally receiving its American premiere at Theatre For The New City on First Avenue and East Tenth Street in downtown Manhattan. And it is just terrific. Indeed, it is difficult to understand why it took so long for it to get here.
Theatrical history is rife with plays dealing with dysfunctional siblings, in many instances focusing primarily on sexually repressed spinster sisters. Think The Glass Menagerie or The Rainmaker. Playing Sinatra is a play of that genre but one packing even more of a wollop. It is The Glass Menagerie or The Rainmaker on steroids. Imagine The Glass Menagerie as it might have been written by Jean Genet or The Rainmaker had it been penned by Harold Pinter and you’ll get some idea of what I’m driving at.Since the death of their parents just a few weeks apart, Sandra Lewis (Katharine Cullison), a middle-aged spinster has lived with her brother Norman (Richard McElvain), a sometimes violent bookbinder whose agoraphobia may be the least of his mental ailments in their cavernous ancestral home in Streatham, London.
Norman appears to be content with his life as it is. He seldom leaves the house and busies himself with his bookbinding and with his fancied gourmet cooking (which, if truth be told, amounts to little more than microwaving TV dinners which are transformed in his mind’s eye into haute cuisine). He remains the boy he once was, albeit now in a man’s body.
Sandra, on the other hand, does leave the house on a daily basis to work at a tedious office job and she, at least, has not given up entirely on life. Indeed, she even may have been exploring the possibility of selling or moving from their home. .In a way, she is the opposite of Norman, not a girl trapped in a woman’s body, but rather a middle-aged sexually repressed woman who never allowed the young girl she once might have been to emerge. Today, the only things that bind the siblings together are their shared history, promises they made to their deceased parents, and a mutual passion for the life and music of Frank Sinatra. It is in Sinatra’s lyrics that they find what others might discover in Ecclesiastes.
When Phillip de Groot (Austin Pendleton), an American and self-described “seeker” arrives on the scene, his disruptive influence on the lives of Sandra and Norman is immediately palpable. But will Phillip be Sandra’s “platonic lover,” her savior, or her destroyer. He’s certainly nothing like Laura Wingfield’s “gentleman caller” (a la The Glass Menagerie) and whether or not he’ll turn out to be the likes of Lizzie Curry’s Bill Starbuck (a la The Rainmaker) remains to be seen.
Cullison is absolutely wonderful as Sandra Lewis, at one moment capturing her distraught angst and sexual frustration, in the next portraying her fear of men seeking to get into her knickers, moving on to exhibit her deep devotion to her brother (which almost appears to border the incestuous), only to affirm her dream of finding in Phillip the “platonic lover” she has long sought. McElvain is equally good as the mentally disturbed Norman, whose delusional quirks run the gamut from a damaging agoraphobia, to a compulsive love of Sinatra, to momentary ourbursts of violence to repressed homosexuality. And Pendleton is just grand as the enigmatic and manipulative Phillip who, chameleon-like, manages to allow the other characters and the audience to make of him what they will.
This is one hell of a play and deserves a longer run. Go see it.