Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Adoption tale tugs at heart, funny bone: A theatrical journey of the heart pays off for both its author and Actors' Playhouse.

From: The Miami Herald

Date: May 13, 2007

Author: Christine Dolen

May 13--The forging of a family propels a funny, touching journey in Susan J. Westfall's The Boy from Russia, a play now getting its world premiere at Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables.

Developed through many drafts and over a number of years, the play has a history that precedes its existence as theater: Westfall and her husband adopted their younger son from a Russian orphanage.

That context wouldn't matter if Westfall hadn't found a way to make her story live as comedy-infused drama, but she most decidedly has.

The script could still use some tweaking and trimming; the ending, for example, feels like a dullish afterthought. But in this rare instance of Actors' Playhouse tackling a brand-new work, director David Arisco and a wondrously inventive cast have done both the play and playwright proud.

Initially, Jack Goldman (Avi Hoffman) and Beth Marshall (Sandy Ives) aren't on the same page about giving their biological son a sibling through adoption. Jack is enthused, Beth skittish and far less certain.

Then, in the office of understandably wary adoption agent Robert Wexler (Stephen G. Anthony), a fateful thing happens: Beth spies a tiny Russian boy on a grainy video and falls in love.

Through many twists, turns and emotional flip-flops, The Boy from Russia follows the couple's travails as they journey to Smolensk to bring home a son.

Hoffman and Ives are terrific as the Americans who blunder their way through numerous encounters in a land and language they don't quite get. Both mine the play's comedy (as when they prepare to make some very chilly love in former Cold War territory) as well as its deeply moving moments (Hoffman's first sighting of Jack's son-to-be -- whom the audience never sees -- is beautifully played).

However, through a combination of writing and acting alchemy, two Russian characters in Westfall's play come vibrantly close to overshadowing everyone else. As adoption "facilitator" Victor Chelnikov, Chaz Mena is mysterious, funny, flamboyantly emotional and as intoxicating as the very best Russian vodka. Russian actress Katya Ilina is a kind of wise-yet-crafty earth mother as translator Svetlana Lubskaya, whose nonrapport with Victor is slyly amusing.

In dual roles, Anthony is engaging as the illusion-shattering Wexler and volatile as a judge not averse to bribery. Kim Ostrenko glows as Beth's kid-inexperienced single sister, then transforms into the cooler Russian woman who has become a kind of guardian angel for the Goldmans' son-to-be.

Usually reliable set designer Gene Seyffer seems to have been stymied by having to fit the play's multiple locations onto the smaller stage of the upstairs Balcony Theatre; the result is unattractively minimalist.

Still, if the bulk of the production budget has gone into hiring these particular actors, that's money very well spent.

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