Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

Meditative play earn praise

Cleveland Press November 30, 1979

Robert Anderson's "Silent Night, Lonely Night" opened last night at Dobama, thus getting its Cleveland premiere almost 20 years to the day after its opening night (Dec. 3, 1959) on Broadway.

Anderson is best known for his earlier work, 'Tea and Sympathy' This newer play bears all the hallmarks of Anderson's writings -- sensitivity, skill, maturity, literateness. If It is flawed it is because Anderson has written a work that is often too balanced in examining every facet of his characters and of being In the end more literary than dramatic.

I suspect the play is neglected because it doesn't offer the theatrical excitement of something happening every other minute.

Anderson has written a play with a rather single-minded purpose -- an examination of the married state from almost every conceivable angle.

His device is to throw two people, a man and a woman, into a situation that will eventually and inevitably lead to a single act of adultery. Each is married, each has reached a crisis in his or her own marriage, each in the end wants a return to the married state with all of its problems.

An evening spent talking about life and love requires more skill than most playwrights possess. Even for Anderson's talents there is a tendency towards verbosity.

Even more, It requires a couple of performers who can handle this kind of philosophic ping pong without sounding platitudinous.

This production has them in Mary Jane Nottage and Ron Newell. Both manage to be complicated and appealing. She speaks her lines as though hesitating to confide and of doing so finally because she is speaking to a stranger. He offers the assurance that seems so real and then cracks and crumbles a little at a time as the truth emerges.

The setting is a hotel in a tiny New England town on Christmas Eve. Aside from a young, honeymooning couple, they are the only guests. She is miserable because she has learned that her husband, off in London, has been having an affair.

His wretchedness goes deeper. His wife is insane, confined to a nearby asylum and he waits for one of her occasional good days to see her. For most of the play, he tries to keep up the pretense that she is dead.

For all of the first act and half of the second they pour out their stories -- their griefs, their pleasures and their arguments In resisting adultery.

These arguments crumble at the end of the first scene of the second act in a moment of mutual self-pity and misery.

The final scene finds them going their separate ways, determined to pick up the pieces of the only relationship they find acceptable -- their marriages.

Direction by Don Bianchi seems to emphasize the hesitation followed by occasional bursts of confidences as the two people at first hold back and then unload their emotions on each other.

In addition to Newell's major contribution as an actor there is another In his work of set decoration, the result being about as handsome and realistic as anything in the professional theater -- let alone a community theater.

Dobama recently completed an amazingly successful run of 'The Iceman Cometh," the kind of play a commercial theater would hesitate to tackle and with good reason. The only chance for Clevelanders to see it was there.

"Silent Night, Lonely Night" is also commercially risky, even more risky. It's melancholy as well as thoughtful, brutally honest In its observation that holidays emphasize sadness as well as Joy.

It is probably a very personal play -- it was written after the death of his own wife and probably reflects much of his own mental torture. It is meditative and a sad song.

In dealing with adultery, it is an island of quiet in a sea of contrived comedy that is all over the place in the abundance of productions of "Same Time, Next Year." That one is a fantasy for the middle-aged who would like all the thrills of a lifelong affair without impairing their marriages.

"Silent Night, Lonely Night" is the work of an artist, not a writer of jokes.