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The Boston Globe

On the Cape, Classic Comedy and Wicked Farce

Author: Gina Perille, Globe Correspondent   Date: June 22, 2003
Page: N8   Section: Arts / Entertainment

WELLFLEET — That it’s a Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater production should be the first clue. That it’s a romance set in a mental ward should be the second. Leave any expectations of conventional theater at home.

Billed as half farce and half romance, “The Art Room” is a relentlessly wicked little comedy by Billy Aronson, who is perhaps best known as one of the creative talents behind the musical “Rent.” Aronson’s script tosses the audience into the lives of four mental-ward patients, along with the nurse who cares for them and the husband of the newest arrival. All of the patients seem to have multiple personalities upon which to draw. And when added in with the nurse’s double life, the husband’s philandering, a stage full of doors, and the occasional lice check, things certainly become—in a word—crazy. The craziness has a tenderness to it, which makes a lot of the twitches, outbursts, and mistaken identities enjoyable. But there are times when the onstage action seems like little more than unstructured noise. It’s a wonder that director Brendan Hughes does not manage those moments a little more carefully. All of the characters, whether institution alized or not, are insane in their own way, and that is certainly one of the playwright’s points. It is the degree to which people can function alongside insanity that Aronson emphasizes.

Despite some of the manic excesses, Laura Given Napoli delivers a near-perfect portrayal of Norma, the mental-ward nurse with dreams of a new life outside the hospital. Norma serves as a moral and mental center in “The Art Room,” although her abilities are occasionally questionable. The actress’s abilities, however, are never in question as she expertly combines expressiveness and awkwardness to create her character.

Audiences saw glimpses of her performance style when she appeared in “Epic Proportions” with the Lyric Stage Company last winter, but Napoli’s work in “The Art Room” trumps all.

Another enjoyable, quasi-sane character is Art, husband to the institutionalized actress Madeline, who is played to great effect (and with great eye shadow) by Kelly Mares. Charles Weinstein portrays the neurotic, tape recorder-carrying Art with ease, although Aronson’s script requires Weinstein to constantly maintain two simultaneous conversations—one with his tape recorder and another with people onstage. Weinstein makes this much more than a stage bit.

Rounding out the patient list are Tommy Day Carey as Jon, the script’s engine of mischief; Stephen Russell as Thomas, the unassuming—and unexpected—leading man; and Laura Latreille as Jackie, the sensitive floor-buffer.

As a demonstration of the play’s relentlessness, the “Art Room” activities continue during intermission, although no one should fear missing a major plot turn in dashing out to the lobby. While there’s little to identify as subtle in this production, dressing the stage crew in hospital scrubs and having the cast “act” during the break is a worthwhile choice.

The small playing space of the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater stage enhances Dan Joy’s skewed set, which is covered in an unrivaled shade of institutional green. The artwork strewn about in Act 2 is worth a close look, even without any direct reference from the script.

“The Art Room” is worth visiting. Just be sure to know the way out.