When we left The Stone Witch at the Westside Theatre my friend Dina and I felt we had attended a workshop rather than an Off-Broadway production. Nothing about it had come together to make a compelling play.
The plot is familiar. A young aspirant, in this case a children’s book writer but it could also be a singer, actress — fill in the blank — goes to work for aging idol and the two develop a relationship that is either cutthroat or nurturing.
The familiarity of the storyline isn’t the problem. It’s that the two men, Dan Lauria as the elderly children’s book author and illustrator Simon Grindberg and Rupak Ginn as Peter Chandler, a young man with a manuscript of his own he’d like to get published, have no chemistry together, either positive or negative. It’s as if they are two actors just getting together to work on a show, rather than having been through rehearsals and previews. Whether this is the fault of their acting, Steve Zuckerman’s directing or Shem Bitterman’s play is hard to pinpoint. Maybe a combination of all three.
The two characters are brought together by Clair Forlorni (Carolyn McCormick), Simon’s literary agent whom he describes as “a barracuda in Armani.” Peter had hoped she would publish his children’s book, The Stone Witch, but when he arrives at her office he discovers she is interested in him for another reason. She wants to hire him to help Simon finish his long overdue — by 12 years — next manuscript. Peter will receive $10,000 but remain uncredited in the finished work. Simon had been beloved worldwide for his books, but in his old age has become reclusive and blocked. He’s also shifts into demented states, leaving him unable to carry on a sensible conversation much less finish a book.
Peter journeys out to Simon’s cabin in the woods, manuscript in hand, to find the person whose work he so admires is a difficult old man. This is a problem for Peter at first and was a problem for me throughout. I didn’t like Simon, even when it is revealed that his writer’s block stems from his lack of hope. He seems human briefly, but then returns to being a bore. Actually I didn’t care much for the other two characters either because they also came off as one-dimensional.
The two elements of the production that are fully developed, and quite nicely so, are Yael Pardess’s scenic and projection art designs and Betsy Adams’s lighting. Simon’s cabin has the standard cozy look, with the addition of large Maurice Sendak-like cartoon animals lining the upper walls. Through the windows we see a dense forest, giving the feeling of remoteness. The cabin is transformed into Clair’s office and a bar with little noticeable effort, thanks to the cleverness of the set design and lights. It’s delightful to watch the woods darken and what seems like skywriting — or children’s book illustrating — drawing a Manhattan skyline in lights out the window of what becomes Clair’s office.
If only that transformative magic could be found in the rest of the show, which was produced in 2016 by the Berkshire Theatre Croup starring Judd Hirsch.