Cherry Lane Studio Theatre
38 Commerce St.
Wednesday - Sunday through September 17, $55
Last year, the american vicarious theater company, led by artistic director Christopher McElroen, presented the world premiere of Thomas Klingenstein’s Douglass, about nineteenth-century abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass. The same team is now back with If Only..., which opened yesterday at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre. McElroen and Klingenstein are an unusual pair; the former is cofounder of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, while the latter is a conservative philanthropist and financial advisor who believes there is “too much emphasis on ethnic and racial difference and too little on our common national identity.” They both attempt to bridge that divide in If Only…, a relatively vanilla tale of the reunion of schoolteacher and former slave Samuel Johnson (Mark Kenneth Smaltz) and prominent society wife Mrs. Ann Astorcott (Melissa Gilbert), who had been brought together by Abraham Lincoln and haven’t seen each other since the assassinated president’s funeral. It’s now the winter of 1901, and Ann lives in a New York City Victorian brownstone with her businessman husband, Henry (Richmond Hoxie), and a young orphan, Sophie (Korinne Tetlow), who has not spoken since a tragic occurrence. Henry is out at a meeting of the monument committee — a rather timely responsibility, given the current controversy over historical statuary — so Ann and Samuel, who has arrived from Chicago to attend another funeral, are by themselves, where they exchange niceties, skirting around the central issue of their deep affection for each other, which, under different circumstances, could have led to a more serious, involved relationship. “Mr. Lincoln did not abide convention,” Samuel tells her. “Did you know that he did not hunt. Everyone hunted in the West, but not Mr. Lincoln. Nor did he drink, smoke, or swear. He did not like to fight, to farm, and he did not despise Indians. The soldiers liked his unconventional ways.” Ann responds, “The older I get, the more I understand the need for convention. One needs deep ruts to keep them from going off course.” He replies, “You once defied convention,” to which she answers, “If you say so.” The play is structured around the concept of convention, whether these two people, who clearly still are in love, will throw caution to the wind and let free their true feelings.
If Only... takes place in the Astorcotts’ cozy, old-fashioned parlor, designed by William Boles. Gilbert (The Miracle Worker, Little House on the Prairie) is prim and proper as Ann, who is like a butterfly in her husband’s collection, pinned back, not allowed by society to burst out and show her true colors. Law and Order veteran Smaltz (American Son, It Can’t Happen Here) plays Samuel with a cool demeanor; he understands the complicated situation but won’t take action unless Ann breaks out of her cold posturing. There’s not much to McElroen’s direction; the characters switch chairs or move a table, just to give them something physical to do. Klingenstein tries to make various comparisons to the current state of race relations in the United States (as well as an anachronistic reference to a glass ceiling), but they mostly fall flat in the face of the obvious, especially since what happened in Charlottesville. If Only... turns out to be more of a writing exercise than a fully fledged play, an overly trite story that exploits Lincoln’s beliefs and accomplishments, wondering why we all still can’t just get along.