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Bob Goepfert Reviews "Better" At Bridge Street Theatre

Brian Linden as Ben and Montana Lampert Hoover as Emily.
John Sowle
Brian Linden as Ben and Montana Lampert Hoover as Emily.

It’s an open secret that most of the truly exciting and adventurous summer theater takes place in the second stages of the major theater festivals. 

Places like the Williamstown Theater Festival, Barrington Stage Company and Shakespeare & Company often offer work that is more challenging in the smaller spaces than is happening on the mainstages.

A better kept secret is that this type of exciting theater goes on regularly at Bridge Street Theater in Catskill.  They do it 12 months a year and for about a third of the ticket price at a major festival.

Validating Bridge Street’s credentials is the thrilling new play “Better,” which is currently being given a near-flawless production at its intimate Catskill venue.

It might use some tweaking, but as it stands now, it is a play that will keep you absorbed throughout its 90-minute performance time and will stay with you long after you leave the theater.   

My only frustration with the playwright Michelle Carter’s storytelling is she doles out information about the play’s major plot point in a begrudging manner.  But it’s not a bad choice as it’s easy to intuit something terrible happened.  However at some point not knowing the facts is more distracting than it is mysterious.

And to be fair,  the point of he play is not to make sense of the senseless.  It is to  examine the aftermath of how a family is defined by society after one of them commits an irrational  act of violence.

This act opens everyone’s life to public scrutiny, constant curiosity and unsubstantiated conclusions are drawn.   If the public is harsh, inconsiderate and demanding, the family is even worse on themselves.  The questions that cannot be answered are endless.  The self-doubts are maddening.   

However, the dominant question Emily needs answered is - being her mother’s child, is she prone to perhaps behave the same way as her mother when provoked?  Should she bear children who too might inherit the genethat tends toward violence?

This makes “Better” a play about a person’s journey to self-awareness.  Though the play centers on the issues of a 20-year old female who is trying to reconcile her mother’s action to her own behavior, it is a journey every adult must in some form take in order to be in control of their own lives.  It adds an element of the profound to an all too familiar incident.   Indeed, this story is based on an actual event.

Emily’s search for self has her leave the college at which her mother taught and take a job working as a waitress in a fondue local restaurant.  She visits a medium and with her boyfriend self-consciously studies the Kama Sutra hoping she might find the will to live a celibate life

The story unfolds so comically, yet believably that the deeper themes in the play are absorbed effortlessly

A lot of this is because of a leisure pace set by director Sara Lampert Hoover. She gives the play space to breathe and the performers enough latitude to make unbelievable characters believable.

Montana Lampert Hoover is an endearing, but strong-willed Emily. She’s brave, but not reckless, as she refuses to be defined by the actions of others. Not only does Hoover create a memorable character, in a play consisting of mostly two-person scenes with her at the center, she is an unselfish acting partner.

Benefiting most from the pace of the play is Carla Lewis, as Luisa, who trains Emily at the fondue restaurant. Her character grows on you throughout the play. She is gently comic, inherently wise and a perfect surrogate mother for Emily.

As the bad joke-telling Medium Molly, Lori Evans resists any temptation to overact to steal a scene. Even her most outrageous moments during a séance are grounded in the character’s truth. Brian Linden uses a stiff, formal acting style to perfectly define the awkward father-daughter relationship his character Ben has with Emily. Eric Fleming uses the passive-aggressive nature of the boyfriend Michael, as a perfect counterweight to Emily’s determined nature. Though on the wimpy side, Fleming shows Michael to be a stand-up guy and a good friend.

The simple and unobtrusive set and lighting design by John Sowle is much like the show – you don’t realize how good it is until long after the performance.

“Better” is a terrific theater experience. It plays through Sunday September 22. For tickets and schedule information call 1-800- 838-3006 or go to bridgestreettheatre.org

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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