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Theater review: Fresh story, superb acting lift WTF’s ‘Knickerbocker’

Theater review: Fresh story, superb acting lift WTF’s ‘Knickerbocker’

In a world premiere production at the Williamstown Theater Festival, playwright Jonathan Marc Sherma

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — “Are you ready?”

What kind of a question is that? Especially when what looms large is one of the biggest changes in your life. How do you get ready for that?

In a world premiere production at the Williamstown Theater Festival, playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman confronts us to come up with a plan in his new play “Knickerbocker,” encouraging us to get ready by looking over our life so far and trying to get us to draw a map for the rest.

’Knickerbocker’

WHERE: Williamstown Theater Festival, Williamstown, Mass.

WHEN: Through July 19

HOW MUCH: $35–$37

MORE INFO: 413-597-3400 or www.wtfestival.org

Jerry and Pauline are having a baby. Sitting and discussing baby names as they study their peach-sized baby on a sonogram, they both skirt around their fear of the impending event. While Pauline seems relatively composed and prepared for the wonder of it, Jerry is expressing a calm concern for the unexpected. He needs to get ready. Is he ready? How does one know? How does one do it?

In a series of small scenes, Jerry holds court in his booth at his favorite Manhattan restaurant as friends and family fly in to advise, assist, share some apprehensions, correct Jerry’s memory and look over the past to glean a hint of comfort for the future. The action here is similar to “My Dinner with Andre,” a film about change and learning, but Mr. Sherman’s evening journey is peppered with more modern, accessible humor.

In Reg Rogers performance, full of calm, controlled anxiety, as Jerry the father-to-be, he offers an everyman feel to the questions that plague natural change. With a small smile and honest worry, his actions are real and the emotion true as he tries to sort out if whether or not there is an answer to the command to get ready.

Susan Pourfar engages as Jerry’s wife and partner, showing her own sense of wonderment and reassurance with the approaching arrival of change. Brooks Ashmankas, as best friend Melvin, tells tales of experience from the land of fatherhood with a wry and sardonic wit well placed and performed. Annie Parisse as Tara, Jerry’s girlfriend past, not only keeps the flirt and flame alive with her knowledge of Jerry’s former life, but expresses well Tara’s wonder at her own question: What if?

Peter Dinklage is close to perfection as Jerry’s fried-friend Chester who while under the influence of some very vintage weed, expresses the primal fear of friendship often left unsaid. With Rogers playing the straight man to Dinklage’s funny foil, they relate the tale of two friends that have traveled the same path and arrive where the path divides to take them only further apart. The scene is hilarious, but the undercurrent is unsettling as we instinctively know the outcome as Jerry’s entrance into the “continuum.”

Bob Dishy’s dinner discourse with his son evokes exchanges most of us have had with a parent. The realization that you are looking at a photograph of the two of you, but each remembers a different feeling or need; all that was unsaid, all that was felt. The moments of loss shared and a common humorous history brings comfort in the familiar and offer clues for a future generation. Dishy’s timing and delivery are masterful and while the scene may go on too long, the wistful familial bonding between the two is funny, moving and at times close to heartbreak.

Mr. Sherman’s keen ear for what is real manages to capture words that are right. While at times the evening veered close to becoming a “Very Special Episode” of the television show “Seinfeld,” the dialogue stays safely away from the somber and the acting excels.

Simply staged and spare, director Nicholas Martin keeps the character exchanges fresh, honest and unassuming, letting the realistic construction of the play set all moments firm. Phillip Rosenberg’s lighting is apt and artful and Alexander Dodge’s set outlines well without intruding on the action.

While Sherman’s play may need a trim and tighten here and there, I say it’s almost ready to arrive.

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