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Material falls short on JRT's big night

On Thursday night, as patrons of the Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York filtered into the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre in Getzville's renovated Jewish Community Center, murmurs of approval filled the air.

The company's new home, a 120-seat auditorium and theater space with state-of-the-art equipment and adaptable stage, had been dedicated earlier that evening in a joyous ceremony in the center's lobby. And its fans, who have followed the theater from space to space since its founding in 2003, were clearly elated that the JRT had finally found a permanent home.

The sold-out event augured well for the company, which now appears to be entering a new period of stability at a time when arts groups everywhere are struggling.

No matter your spiritual inclination, there's something undeniably potent -- "holy" might not be too strong a word -- about witnessing the first line of the first production in a new theater space. This one escaped from the lips of Christina Rausa, who was on hand for a one-night performance of William Luce's play "Lillian," a biographical portrait of playwright Lillian Hellman.

While Rausa's portrayal of the famously strong-willed and gifted author of "The Little Foxes" and "The Children's Hour" was often deeply felt and full of lovely nuances, the source material didn't quite live up to the occasion.

Luce's play consists of a series of biographical vignettes strung loosely together in the attempt to paint a portrait of the enigmatic playwright. Taken together, Luce's indiscriminate reconstructions of the defining moments in Hellman's life are more like a collection of quickly drawn graphite sketches from one particularly flattering angle than a deftly rendered, warts-and-all oil painting of the subject.

Part of the blame for that no doubt goes to Luce, who tosses formative stories from Hellman's childhood where they don't quite fit and surrounds potent little nuggets of thoughtful reflection with too many layers of exposition and extraneous asides.

We do wind up with a great deal of insight, however, into Hellman's long and complicated relationship with the novelist Dashiel Hammett ("The Maltese Falcon," "The Thin Man"), which might on its own make an interesting little two-hander.

But Luce too often indulges Hellman hagiography, for which the playwright left plenty of questionable source material. There's an all-too-breezy line in which she swiftly absolves herself for supporting Stalin, for instance, and there is naturally no mention of her proven fabrication of stories in the memoirs from which much of this play was ostensibly drawn.

By the time we get to the famous line Hellman wrote to the House Un-American Activities Committee -- "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions" -- we don't have a particularly clear idea of how she arrived at that conviction.

But then you have to consider the difficulty about a subject as enigmatic and in some ways unknowable as Hellman. The first in her trilogy of memoirs, after all, is titled "An Unfinished Woman." So perhaps it's no great wonder that "Lillian" comes off as an unfinished play.




2 1/2 stars (out of 4)    

Presented Thursday evening by the Jewish Repertory Theatre in the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, Jewish Community Center Benderson Family Building, Amherst.

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