… mix and match through time … 

Looking at first like a comedy of manners, Act I takes us to a British colony in Africa during Victorian times.  We soon learn that the characters – members of a nuclear family, some friends, servants and hangers-on – are embroiled in infidelity and/or non-conventional sexual arrangements, passions and longings in the context of stiff upper lip British Empire attitudes and a do-what-you-want-as-long-as-it-stays-discrete way of getting along.

In Act II, we meet these characters (with additions and subtractions) living in London in 1979, and the characters from Act I are now twenty-five years older.  It takes a moment but it’s an interesting idea: since by the second act, sexual liberation has “happened,” the question is raised: how will the new openness change them and their sexual interactions?

The first act is a fast-paced sexual farce in which the “right” people love the “wrong” people, hidden liaisons are nearly revealed, and – given that nothing in the realm of sex is what it’s “supposed” to be – amusing hidden entendres abound. Over-protected Betty, the mother of the family yearns for the visiting romantic adventurer, Harry, who returns her love in words but not deeds (guess why) while her husband, Clive is carrying on with a feisty gal from a nearby plantation who doesn’t love him but what the heck while the Nanny is filled with repressed passion for … etc.

As the father of the family, Clive faces his challenges with conventional British bluster:  these are, in order of priority, a recalcitrant lover, a son who plays with a doll, and the restiveness of the natives which may send them all back to England.  One character appears to show duty but no love:  the Black retainer. Act I is performed and directed with great style and is a lot fun.

In contrast, Act II, when some of the characters are re-met at an older age and in the setting of London in the ‘70’s, is diffuse.  Now, as one would expect, what was once hidden is more out in the open. The little boy who played with dolls is now an adult bisexual experiencing the frustrations of adult love.  His younger sister is a Lesbian.  Households may include gays and straights, not necessarily in two-by-two relationships.  Lesbians care for their own children.  And Betty’s finally made a strike for liberation by announcing, after all these years, she’s divorcing her husband.

But while the characters in Act I are vivid, the lines witty, and the plot lines interesting, in Act II the characterizations are thin, the plot scattered, and the effect disjointed.  This may be intended as a commentary on the times but it doesn’t make for compelling theater.  I doubt this contemporary playwright thinks the “times” were better in the Victorian era but she wrote better about it.

The acting, particularly in Act I, is very fine.  Chris Perfetti, a man in the role of Betty, expresses smoldering emotion masked by a stunning control of facial features, emblematic of the idea of well-trained upper class repressed Victorian women.  Much of the humor rests on the gesture, carriage and timing of Clarke Thorell as the “There’ll always be an England” father.  Brooke Bloom’s characterization of the little boy who loves his doll is truly remarkable.

Cloud Nine plays at the Atlantic Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through November 1, 2015.

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