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Theater: Searching for Laughs on a Painful Playing Field


SARASOTA – Asolo Rep's season finale, My Brilliant Divorce, features Tony-nominated Mary Testa as Angela Kennedy Lipsky, who was once half of the happy couple Angela and Matt, but now finds herself middle-aged and alone after her husband leaves her for a 25-year-old Argentine woman, following a long affair that Angela knew nothing about. Geraldine Aaron's one-actress play is directed by Michael Donald Edwards and runs through July 14.

Aaron's uniquely-crafted two-act, solo performance has been running in England and Ireland since 2001, when it premiered in her home city of Galway. For the U.S. version, it's been modified with Angela transformed into an American who is living in London after marrying a Brit. I'm not sure this is necessary and it might have created even more snags than it solved. For starters, while Angela has been thoroughly Americanized, her mother – who she talks to on the phone via an offstage recording – still lives in Dublin and speaks with a native accent, a holdover from the original script that they don't bother to change or otherwise explain.


Mary Testa in My Billiant Divorce

photo by Barbara Banks

One gets the sense that everything from the heavy use of stereotypical characters voiced by Angela, to the very title of the play – brilliant has much more universal employment in that culture – get a bit muddled in the translation. While I haven't seen the original version, I also wonder if British Angela is any more sympathetic as a character than her American counterpart – a shallow, whiny, frumpy middle-aged woman, who still manages to register shock that a husband she seems to have merely settled for and then come to loathe, somehow imagines that life will be better without her in it.

Testa gives an animated performance and has both the gravity and endurance to hold it all together. Her character moves through all of the low-hanging fruit of finding oneself single halfway through life. There are somewhat limp jokes about everything from her changing body and modern grooming techniques, to her husband's endowment. There's even an attempted casual sexual encounter, followed by a doctor-prescribed trip to the adult-novelty shop and all of the awkward exchanges that you would expect to follow. Think of a Judd Apatow film, only much more PG-13 and without a particularly original or imaginative ordeal in the lot. 

Set is key in a solo performance, almost a character unto itself, and Asolo's creative team came through for Edwards. From the brick facade that catches the many visual projections to key props like the mechanical dog Dexter and the mechanized planks that deliver the telephone, they managed subtle improvements over other productions. Edwards also does a good job utilizing onstage space and gives the stage an impression of much greater size than is actually the case.

In the end, My Brilliant Divorce cashes in on enough familiar territory that I suspect many will be able to relate to elements of Angela's plights, as seemed to be the case at Wednesday's well-received premier. The shortcomings of the material are galvanized by the talent at hand, and while younger demographics and males in general might not find it to be their cup of tea, the target audience (which I'd suspect to be women over 50) should be able to make a good girls night out of the affair. 

Mary Testa in My Billiant Divorce - photo by Barbara Banks

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