WHERE: Berkshire Theater Festival, 6 East St., Stockbridge, Mass.
WHEN: Through July 16
HOW MUCH: $44-$15
MORE INFO: 413-298-5576, www.berkshiretheatre.org
Often cited as one of the most truthful and insightful plays about the college youth of the 1960s, Michael Weller’s comic drama “Moonchildren” has become a seldom-staged curiosity. Its reputation as groundbreaking has also been derided as being due more to its timing than craft.
Berkshire Theater Festival has staged a strong revival of this early Weller work, quieting any question of its literary merit and offering audiences a chance to hear from an infrequently produced American writer.
Appearing more a faded Polaroid than a vibrant Kodachrome portrait, the memory of “Moonchildren” may hold more fondness and power than its current exposure. No fault lies with Weller’s script or even Karen Allen’s stable direction; emotionally the play’s themes still resonate.
Weller’s dialogue is simple, honest and up-front, but in the years since its first appearance on Broadway in 1972, this quick slice of a play sandwiching coming-of-age with transitioning college friendships and growing ’60s activism, all slathered with Chekhovian ennui, has been copied, chronicled and cannibalized by myriad books, films and television with even greater emotional impact.
And therein lies the problem: We have heard this before. The play’s themes may still be relevant, but they are rooted in a time that now seems quaint and innocent.
The cast is uniformly good, grasping the play’s subtext with ease and delivering a youthful punch. Hale Appleman convinces as the disconnected and emotionally bereft Bob. Joe Paulik as Mike and Matt R. Harrington as Cootie wonderfully find all the pop and parry of two in-sync psychotic members of Mensa.
Aaron Costa Ganis’ self-involved and self-important stance works well for Dick. And Samantha Reichert is delightfully and oddly compelling as Shelly, an ardent cosmic flower child as she sits blowing bubbles under a table at the foot of her boyfriend, Norman, who is given a bookish and slightly scary read by Carter Gill. Miriam Silverman successfully tames the imperious and buries fury as Ruth, but Norma Kuhling is unable to find Kathy’s deep and wanting attachment to Bob (or Dick) without whining.
The “grown-ups” in the play have little to do but act as reactionaries — either to complain about the kids or pile on what now sounds like pretentious praise. Kale Brown as the earnest and envious landlord gets the pace right, but the platitudes fall with a sting of falseness. Andrew Joffe finds the humor in the dual roles of cop and milkman and delivers the law and the cream with just the right wink and nudge.
At times, Allen’s direction seems too reverential, allowing the bubbling and boiling emotions to fade and the connections that are supposed to snap only snare. In addition, for all the free love and implied sex that is in the script, there is very little slap and tickle between the actors. The missing moments of touch, only assist to move this play to a permanent home in a literary museum.
Conversely, Allen’s guidance in the challenging moments where the characters are alone and reflective, is palpable and welcome. Appleman’s final discovery of the result of his emotional deferment is wonderfully highlighted and orchestrated along with a hysterical moment in which Reichert explores colorful vistas from her new perch on top of the table.
Scenic designer John Traub’s idea of a cramped attic apartment inhabited by six struggling, cash-strapped college seniors is far too expansive and clean to be realistic, but it is handsome and sparsely apportioned with all the required Salvation Army décor. George Veale’s costumes offer a smattering of the era’s clothing styles.
“Moonchildren” seems frightfully tame and tepid for today’s jaded and overly informed audiences. But like a found letter from an old friend with its postmark from the past, the messages contained in Weller’s play still ping with relevance and nostalgia all at once.