By Sarah Downs
I left This Beautiful Future scratching my head. The play has received rave reviews in its several incarnations, yet it left me flat.
The story is one of timeless romance set in a very specific time, between Otto (Uly Schlesinger), a callow German soldier stationed in France and Elodie (Francesca Carpanini) a daring French girl. They have arranged to meet in an abandoned house for an assignation. An older couple Austin (Austin Pendleton, all goofy, nearly inaudible charm) and Angelina (Angelina Fiordellisi, who exudes a lovely natural warmth), in modern dress, sit upstage watching the action through a window, much like visitors at a zoo. They indulge in reverie, in various non sequitur phrases. They also periodically break into song, a meet-cute device that soon wears out its welcome, as does the modern language. The cringe inducing use of “And I was like…” and frequent guest appearances of the ‘Fword’ end up in a linguistic lose/lose, as the modern speech feels forced, yet also makes the occasional use of period terminology like “Boche” equally jarring.
The play feels more about obstacles to love than love itself. Otto is frightened and shut down but we are supposed to believe he feels passion for Elodie. She is shocked at his ignorance, and his Nazi ideology, but she still wants to go to bed with him. As he alternately screams at her and retreats into soft-spoken insecurities, you have to wonder at the appeal. We catch a glimmer of it later in the play when we see how Otto and Elodie met. Schlesinger is allowed a moment to blossom, behaving as more of a man of agency, or at least some intelligence, but it is too little, too late.
Throughout the play I felt like The Queen of Hearts, being asked to believe six impossible things at once. It’s June 1944, and the Americans are half-way to Paris, yet Otto thinks Germany is about to invade England. How long has he been sitting in that house? He, a soldier in a strange land, is none too anxious about finding a radio and possibly keeping abreast of what news he can find. For her part, Elodie seems unaware of the danger she is in. Four years of Occupation and this girl has no idea what happens to women who fraternize with the enemy? But above all, we are supposed to believe that a German soldier who has swallowed the lie of the Master Race, who fully believes in the Final Solution, would ever bring himself to have sex with a woman with epilepsy. A woman who in his country would have been sterlilized, experimented upon or executed. No. That is a bridge too far.
Director Jack Serio keeps the action moving — emphasizing the characters’ youth and energy, including an extended pillow fight that showers the stage in a blizzard of duck feathers, creating another dream world within the time capsule of their love nest. It is a rare moment of delight. Too often the chaos of choppy dialogue and the painful stop/start of scenes with musical interludes overwhelms the delicate magic of blending past and present, myth and reverie.
Yes, these are lovers beyond politics but not beyond consequences, consequences of which they would have been painfully aware. So why are they taking this risk? If the romance is not compelling, it makes no sense. Alas, in this case, the romance is totally unbelievable, so it falls flat despite the best efforts of both actors. The couple is awkward with each other throughout, and Serio has directed Uly to scream so much of his dialogue it’s painful.
For her part, Francesca Carpanini gives a striking performance as Elodie. Her work is nuanced, her innocence believable, and her intensity shattering.
In addition to Carpanini’s performance, the strongest element in the play is its production design. It is the essential pillar without which this play could not stand. Frank J. Oliva’s set is a groovy elliptical pod, carpeted floor to ceiling in fushia velveteen. It is a modular dreamscape which anchors a romance that has one foot in the real world and the other in a parallel universe. Lighting Designer Stacey Derosier and Projection Designer Lacey Erb bathe the stage in gorgeous hues of red and fuschia, creating a magical world out of place and time, in contrast to the simple bed and costumes by Ricky Reynoso , with their muted greys and browns. Rays of green light greet the lovers as they awaken from their Big Night, like otherworldly morning light filtered through trees. Murky blues hover when dream and reality finally crash. Ambient sound, by Christopher Darbassie from chirping birds to thundering bombs, complete the effect.
I really wanted to love this play, but I found myself more impatient with it than anything else. Yes, there are some beautiful and haunting moments, but with its narrative inconsistencies, pointless musical interruptions, and kitschy proscenium projections, it eventually drags and ultimately disappoints.
This Beautiful Future, by Rita Kalnejais, directed by Jack Serio. With Francesca Carpanini, Uly Sclesinger, Angelina Fiordellisi, and Austin Pendleton. Frank J. Oliva (scenic design), Stacey Derosier (lighting design), Ricky Reynoso (costume design), Christopher Darbassie (sound design), Lacey Erb (projection design).
At The Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce St., NYC), September 10– October 30, 2022, Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and Sundays at 2pm and 7pm. Run time is 75 minutes with no intermission. Tickets, which start at $25, can be purchased online at www.thisbeautifulfuture.com.