11182020 Steve Routman NS Review

In the world premiere of Marisa Smith’s “The Naked Librarian,” Steve Routman is Pumpernickel, whose youthful fling changes the lives of three generations.

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, Vt. — Northern Stage has taken another big step in creating compelling virtual theater. It’s third effort, a double bill of Marisa Smith’s “The Naked Librarian,” a world premiere, and Anton Chekhov’s “On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco,” went online Thursday and remains available through Nov. 29.

“The Naked Librarian” is a serio-comic tale of how a youthful fling influences three generations, mostly for the better, and in “On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco,” Chekhov exploits a poor henpecked husband with a wit that is simply hilarious. These productions are not zoomed; rather they are recorded in a stage-like manner. And it works — it feels almost like real theater.

Smith is a Hanover, New Hampshire, playwright whose “Mad Love (2016) and “Venus Rising” (2019) have been premiered by Northern Stage as well. In this well-crafted new play, it’s love at first sight when Goosie and Pumpernickel meet. They throw up their careers and live blissfully in a tent in Mexico — until a tragedy ensues and Pumpernickel must return home to his proper Jewish family.

Goosie may never see Pumpernickel again, but her spirit lives on. The story is told in four intimate monologues following that spirit through three generations. The result is intriguing storytelling — and the fine acting doesn’t hurt.

The 80-something and fearless Goosie, an earthy and matter of fact Diane J. Findlay, reminisces about a passionate love including the story of how the play got its name. Steve Routman was a deeply touching Pumpernickel who balances his guilt over leaving Goosie with the pride in the good Jewish family he has created.

Except for his too perfect son Jacob — who has his own “Goosie crisis.” Susan Haefner is irresistible and fully dimensional as Jacob’s second wife, the WASP Martha. The lessons learned — or not — are delivered in the final monologue by Caitlin Deerin as a down to Earth but not quite sure of herself Aviva, Jacob’s daughter from his first marriage. Goosie has not been forgotten.

The Northern Stage production, directed by Jess Chayes, is largely excellent. And the performances, despite a bit too much talking with hands, are particularly fine. “The Naked Librarian” is compelling storytelling.

Chekhov, with his dark forlorn characters, is often difficult for actors as well as audiences. To make a monologue like “On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco” not only entertaining but laugh-out-loud funny takes a very special actor.

Directed by Jack Neary, veteran TV actor Gordon Clapp, an Emmy winner living in Norwich, proved just that man. He created a delightful character, at once henpecked and depressed and charming and prideful. Clapp’s portrayal teetered on the brink of farce, but never went over the edge. For the entire 19 minutes, he was simply irresistible.

Both productions were very professional, but there are a few nits to pick. Alek Deva’s camera work was imaginative and largely effective, but there was a tendency to keep the frame filled for a sometimes claustrophobic feel. Sam West’s sound design was particularly good for atmosphere, and most of the interlude music was attractive and appropriate. Still, some of the music in “Naked Librarian” was a bit brash for the material. And Aviva’s costume was just too informal for a medical doctor, even on vacation in Mexico. Still, these are nits.

Northern Stage has created a 90-minute evening of theater that is entertaining and a lot more. It’s the closest we can get to live theater right now, and it’s most welcome.

jim.lowe@timesargus.com / jim.lowe@rutlandherald.com

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