By Ron Fassler . . .
In the excellent one-person show, Everything’s Fine, now playing at the DR2 Theatre, Douglas McGrath portrays himself. An Academy Award-nominated screenwriter (Bullets Over Broadway, co-written with Woody Allen), a Tony-nominated playwright (Beautiful) and a contributor to the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, the audience is in capable hands with a writer of such solid credentials. On a simple schoolroom set that also doubles as a living room and family kitchen (the always reliable John Lee Beatty), ninety minutes fly by. And even though the drama unfolds in jaw-dropping intensity, as the title suggests, there’s a flippancy to the storytelling. It’s for the best we can sort of surmise that even though the story happened to him as a teenager, McGrath turned out, well, fine. Or is he an unreliable narrator?
In intricate detail, with a minimum of props, McGrath treats us to a wild story that is difficult to synopsize without giving away its slew of surprises. What can be revealed is that it involves a school year while in the eighth grade in Midland, Texas where he grew up. As a naïve fourteen-year-old, he introduces to us a forty-seven-year-old he calls Mrs. Malenkov, his new homeroom teacher. They forge a friendship that by all appearances, seems to be healthy . . . until it isn’t. Though no physical abuse comes of things, the psychological manipulation is as creepy as Glenn Close boiling Michael Douglas’s family rabbit.
Though not an actor, under John Lithgow’s subtle direction McGrath is able to take the stage in a relaxed manner. He never pushes anything, encouraged for sure by his director (as good an actor as there is), to just tell the stories. Little embroidery is necessary as the details are fascinating and need no flourishes. When he is playing both himself as a young boy and Mrs. Malenkov, the tension is sometimes unbearable and the audience, from the vantage point of where I was seated, were all leaning in. McGrath is also adept at portraying his mother, a woman who you wish had more stage time in that she worked at Harpers Bazaar in its glory days, under the famed Diana Vreeland (her desk mate was the young Andy Warhol). McGrath’s father endured a difficult tragedy in his childhood, and McGrath’s portrayal of him is superb as well as empathetic. In fact, the theme of empathy is woven through the whole evening, and that is where its power lies. The overall effect is one of gratitude, even though the traumatic experience cannot be discounted.
McGrath’s portrayal of his wiser-than-his-years best pal, Eddie, is also a treat. The droll humor we’re treated to makes for some of the show’s biggest laughs. When asking his advice, the laconic Eddie’s response, “I don’t know. I’ve never dated a teacher,” is priceless.
God knows, adolescence wasn’t easy on any of us. What McGrath went through is both astonishing and heartbreaking. But what makes this evening more than a story you might hear at a dinner party is his talent as a writer. Words are his weapons and sharpening them into swords renders this a swashbuckling tale, albeit one told by a modest man. Impeccably dressed, trim and vigorous, McGrath cuts the figure of a Connecticut WASP (his earliest incarnation before the family moved to Texas). The product of Choate (a private boarding school) and Princeton University, McGrath presents us with the facts (as he experienced them) without judgment. That it manages to be entirely theatrical is, again, due to the gentle guidance of John Lithgow’s expert direction.
One-person shows are not easy to pull off (believe me, I’ve seen way too many that do not). But, expertly produced in the intimate setting of the DR2 stage, with a story that offers insights into the human condition with heartfelt compassion and grace, you owe it to yourself to see Everything’s Fine.
Everything’s Fine. Through January 22, 2023, at the DR2 Theatre (103 East 15th Street at Union Square East). 90 minutes, no intermission. www.everythingsfineplay.com
Photos: Jeremy Daniel