Boo Killebrew’s “Romance Novels for Dummies” reviewed at Williamstown Theatre Festival

Williamstown Theatre Festival hosts premiere of Romance Novels for Dummies
Theatre Review by Larry Murray

Part romantic comedy and part relationship play, Romance Novels for Dummies had its world premiere on the main stage of the Williamstown Theatre Festival last night. There was drama, tension, laughs, pathos and cleverly drawn characters from rising playwright Boo Killebrew, but not enough to fill the big theatre her play was being staged in. Romance Novels is the kind of play that is perfect for off Broadway, an intimate tale of two sisters, with a series of dates that all go wrong, and the ghost of a deceased husband and the ongoing responsibilities of raising a daughter casting a shadow over it all.

Set in present day Brooklyn, the Eberwine sisters Liz (Mary Wiseman) and Bernie (Ashley Austin Morris) have moved to the big city from Mississippi. They brought with them 6-year-old Lily (Emily Lyons) who is being raised by her stay at home mom and her wilder, pot-smoking, drinking and swearing older sister. Mom is trying to figure out what to do with her life, thus her interest in learning how to write romance novels from a self-help book.

Along the way she is encouraged to do some research by some real life dating, and that is how we meet Justin Long who plays Jake, Charles and Myron, her three research subjects who could also become real life boyfriends. Long, of course, is a natural character actor and quickly endows the three different guys with unique voices, stances and personalities. Mary Wiseman’s Liz has her own special response to each of them, and the succession of dates fills in one aspect of her personality.

The relationship with her own daughter Lily tells us volumes more, that this is the focus of her life, not the chance dates she has been pursuing. The scenes with the two of them are both the most intimate and the most moving of the play. The playwright has put a lot of tension between the two grown sisters, and this revealed itself in the fact that Mary Wiseman (Liz) and Ashley Austin Morris (Bernie) didn’t seem to have any theatrical chemistry going between them. Perhaps it was the author’s intention but one could not find much reason to believe they were sisters.

The play, the actors, and Moritz Von Stuelpnagel’s direction all were in earnest, yet the ultimate effect was tepid, the audience obviously restless during much of the course of the play. They clearly wanted to laugh, and did find humor in the dates, and got some real belly laughs when the in-laws, Cecilia and Bobby Eberwine (Connie Ray and Andrew Weems) arrived on the scene late in the play. Their inane parental banter did much to lighten the play’s mawkish mood, but it was not enough.

Tim Mackabee’s set had lots of bells and whistles, like a huge suspended bookcase that would go off like a Times Square billboard between scenes, but neglected to make sure the door through which people came and went would stay closed. There were also shadows visible in the huge space where it met the threshold since the stage was raked. Williamstown Theatre Festival has long been known for the excellence of their scenic design, and while this one had the usual impressive features, they seem to have been at the expense of practical stagecraft.

Williamstown is to be applauded for finding and featuring such a promising playwright as Boo Killebrew. But like the Red Sox, you don’t win every game.

And there is always next year.

Williamstown Theatre Festival presents Romance Novels for Dummies by Boo Killebrew; Moritz von Stuelpnagel – Director; Tim Mackabee – Scenic Designer; Tilly Grimes – Costume Designer; Justin Townsend – Lighting Designer; Palmer Hefferan – Sound Designer. Cast: Liz Eberwine – Mary Wiseman; Bernie Hollis – Ashley Austin Morris; Lily Eberwine – Emily Lyons; Jake/Charles/Myron – Justin Long; Cecilia Eberwine – Connie Ray; Bobby Eberwine – Andrew Weems. Ninety minutes with no intermission on the Main Stage of the ’62 Center for the Arts, Main Street, Williamstown, MA. July 20-31, 2016. Box Office: 413.597.3400

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