84 Charing Cross Road
Where: Langham Court Theatre
When: To Oct. 20
Rating: 4 (out of five)
The play 84 Charing Cross Road seems tailor-made for Victoria, where bibliophiles abound and anglophilia still lingers.
Based on the popular 1970 book by Helene Hanff, this light-hearted piece chronicles the true-life adventures of book-loving Helene and British bookseller Frank Doel. In fact, adventures is too strong a word. The play offers dramatized readings of the pair's correspondence between 1949 and 1969. The "action" is Helene ordering her beautifully bound classics and Doel obliging where possible.
Helene is an irascible Jewish New Yorker who calls Mr. Doel "Frankie" with Bea Arthur-like chutzpah, and reprimands him when her stream of literary classics is occasionally disrupted. With an affectionate cantankerousness some will find winning, she infiltrates Frank's life, becoming pen-pal acquainted with his family and the employees of his antiquarian bookshop.
It's a pleasant piece suffused with the same rosy nostalgic glow as All Creatures Great and Small. We get a sense of postwar Britain still afflicted by shortages: Helene sends care packages of meat and eggs and has a friend deliver nylons. By the time we leave them in the late '60s, England is being transformed by the Beatles and a growing prosperity.
The Victoria Theatre Guild does a terrific job with a play that is, technically and otherwise, very challenging. The script dictates a scenario that's essentially static. We see Helene in her New York apartment on one side of the stage where she's confined until the final minutes of the play. Doel, meanwhile, is sequestered in his own micro-universe: the bookshop.
The director, Sylvia Rhodes, has done an excellent job making this play seem as lively as possible. Bookstore employees stack books, exchange looks and snippets of conversation. Both Helene and Frank are also physically on the move, giving the audience a further sense of action.
It helps greatly, too, that both Jennifer Hoener as Helene and Roger Carr as Doel are good actors. On Thursday, both offered well-rehearsed, confident performances. Hoener in particular impressed. Her New Yorker accent, while apparent, is not overdone. More importantly she captures Helene's combination of brassiness and humanity while avoiding falling into a stereotype. This was an accomplished turn, indeed.
Carr successfully conveyed Doel's British politeness and reserve. This eventually blossoms into warmth and even affection for the woman he never meets. Yet the change as Carr played it is subtle and thus believable.
Designer Bill Adams has made yet another lovely set. A pleasantly fusty bookshop is re-created with tremendous skill and attention to detail - right to the faded set of reverse letters advertising "Marks & Co." on the glass storefront.
Some aspects of the script seem odd. Helene never speaks of a family or love interest. And she's certainly not having a romantic relationship with Doel.
So as a character, she seems curiously abstract, even disembodied.
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