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Tokens of Affection

a Romantic Comedy
CATEGORY : COMEDY
by Topher Payne

COMPANY : Georgia Ensemble Theatre [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Roswell Cultural Arts Center
ID# 3920

SHOWING : January 06, 2011 - January 23, 2011

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

This brand new romantic comedy, written and directed by award-winning Atlanta playwright Topher Payne, explores “empty nesting,” the complications of romance and family dysfunction. What’s a husband to do when his wife of 37 years announces she’s leaving? Both seek solace at the homes of their grown children, to panicked and hilarious results.


CAST & CREW LIST
Playwright Topher Payne
Producer Robert Farley
Director Topher Payne
Stage Manager Hayley Brotherton
Properties M. C. Park
Costumer Linda Patterson
Scenic Designer Stephanie Polhemus
Claire Garrett Burnham Kelly Criss
Jackie Garrett Judy Leavell
Rita Randall Shelly McCook
Charlie Garrett Matthew Myers
Frank Garrett John Stephens
Bruce Burnham Geoff Uterhardt
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REVIEWS

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The Measure of a Marriage
by Dedalus
Saturday, January 29, 2011
4.5
We have this discussion often. “Why don’t you bring me flowers?” “The last time I brought you flowers, they died.”

How odd to hear this (sorta kinda) echoed from the stage during Georgia Ensemble’s “Tokens of Affection,” a funny and endearing romantic comedy written and directed by Atlanta’s own Topher Payne. Filled with Mr. Payne’s usual sharp dialogue and specifically delineated characters, this play shows us a kinder, gentler world, a world where affection and connection subvert the harsher, more grotesque edges of the usual creative Topher-scapes.

Charlie Garrett (Matthew Myers) is a conceptual artist for an international gaming company, putting the finishing touches on his “fire-breathing sea turtles.” He works from his shabbily sprawling New York apartment, and craves privacy to meet his deadline. When he is interrupted by a visit from his eager-to-fix-anything father (John Stephens), a terabyte’s worth of repressed family dysfunction threatens to crash his life. Adding to the strain is his harried sister, Claire (Kelly Criss), his too-preppy-even-for-Connecticut brother-in-law (Googie Uterhardt), his order-the-world-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life mother (Judy Leavell), and the lonely widow from across the hall (Shelly McCook), the only welcome distraction of the day. Suddenly, fire-breathing terrapins and laser-shooting cetaceans are losing their cosmic struggle with threatened divorce, secret pregnancy, and dying house-plants.

Centering it all is a series of brilliantly conceived conversations about marriage, relationships, the contrasting needs of surprise and comfort/appreciation, and the constant wail of “He never brings me flowers!” (It’s a metaphor, you see.) What does define a marriage or any relationship? What metaphors are missing from your partner’s life? What day is it?

I really liked how this play was jammed with tellingly creative details – an absent superintendent who has achieved mythic obscurity, a fire escape called a “terrace” by enterprising real estate agents, a stove that doesn’t work, a carton of milk that doesn’t smell right, a hot dog that is just beyond reach, a missed sticky-note message, a lie here, an exaggeration there, a work crisis everywhere. I really liked how these characters, most from the same family, are nevertheless distinct and aggravating/endearing in their own ways. And I liked how the rom-com plot did not depend on cheap contrivances and clichés for its resolution, but on established character traits and eccentricities.

And I really liked how this cast brought these characters to life. I was a tad distracted by the opening scene between Mr. Myers and Ms. McCook, during which both occasionally fell into that “look-at-me-I’m-reciting-lines” cadence in which every line ends on a down note (in both pitch and volume) and every line is given an unhealthy pause before it starts. But, once Ms. Criss enters with her first frantic “I need Mom’s Beer Bread recipe” phone call from her safe Connecticut Kitchen hidden safely behind an up-right scrim, the performances all take off Before too long, the laughs are being generated more by the whimsy of the characters than by their snappy banter, and, long before intermission, I was fully committed to their lives and to their story.

I liked how Mr. Stephens and Ms. Leavell came across as a real couple with a real history (and real issues) between them, how they worked as a couple to address their problems. Sure, they had practice late last year playing a couple in Theatre-in-the-Square’s “Conversations With My Wife,” but they are so much more effective this time around. Ms. Criss, always wonderful to watch, here creates a highly energized bundle-of-neuroses, making Claire everyone’s aggravating little sister without sacrificing that individuality that can make a performance come truly to life. And, after that rocky opening scene, Mr. Myers becomes more comfortable in the role, coming alive as his sense of desperation increases, and his role as “family mediator” is tested to its limits.

The set (by Stephanie Polhemus) is long and low, paradoxically suggesting a cramped and lived-in apartment at the same time it displays an unrealistic spaciousness. Unrealistic, that is, for a low(ish)-rent New York apartment. The sliver of Claire’s kitchen we see behind the scrim marks a nice contrast (as well as a clever meta-joke that “I can almost see a wall between us”). The lighting design (by Bryan Rosengrant) subtly conveys different times of day and emotionally evocative transitions between warmth and coolness. And the soundscape (by Jason Polhemus) switches seamlessly from Cole Porter standards to electronic beeps and bells and buzzes that define the living/work space of a contemporary worker in electronic fun.

So, what defines your marriage? What are the “tokens of affection” that keep it both comfortable and surprising? If I would say “You never bring me spackle,” I’d probably get a response like “The last time I brought you spackle, it dried.” And there’s nothing wrong with that, holes in the relationship notwithstanding.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

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A Token of Affection
by playgoer
Sunday, January 23, 2011
4.5
Topher Payne's new play, "Tokens of Affection," is being given a Broadway-style production at Georgia Ensemble Theatre. This is a very audience-friendly show that was wildly applauded at the performance I saw, with laughter so loud and long it drowned out succeeding lines.

The design of the show is nifty. The main setting is Charlie Garrett's New York apartment (impossibly huge, of course, as "modest" New York apartments always are in movies and theatre), with occasional views into sister Claire's Connecticut kitchen. It's a funny, self-knowing moment when Charlie's mother talks to him on the phone and comments that there's a "wall" between them, since there literally is. The decor is bachelor pad drab, while the costumes are colorful. It's not beautiful by any means, but the production does have a visual appeal.

With the exception of John Stephens as the buffoonishly artificial father, all the performances work well. Googie Uterhardt, as Claire's husband, invests his small role with a number of deft comic touches. It's clever that he glances at the back cover of a magazine after we've learned his character has recently bought advertising in such places. It's clever when he zips his mouth shut, then unzips it to take his next bite of food. The performances of Kelly Criss and Judy Leavell, as daughter and mother, hit a lot of the same notes, showing the similarity between them, but they're terrifically energetic and are blessed with the best lines in the show. Shelly McCook, as neighbor Rita Randall, and Matthew Myers, as Charlie, have a nice chemistry that allows the somewhat contrived romantic ending to work. It's a satisfying arc that the comedy follows, leaving the audience happy and energized, although the running time is a tad too long.

"Tokens of Affection" is a well-constructed play with broad appeal. I'd be surprised if it didn't have a life after Georgia Ensemble Theatre's production. It's far more mainstream than many other recent new plays (such as Aurora's "Sirens"). Perhaps it's a throwback in its insistence on clever setup and payoff, sprinkled with quirkily comic dialogue, but good, solid entertainment is certainly lots of fun for all concerned. Let this entry act as a "token of affection" for this sweet, funny play. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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