By Ron Fassler . . . 

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it is the verbose Polonius who offers the immortal advice that “brevity is the soul of wit.” It gets a laugh in any good production of the play because of the irony of the character’s habit of rambling on and on in his speeches. This came to mind while experiencing the new, short play This Beautiful Future, currently playing off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Though playwright Rita Kalnejais scores points with concise storytelling between its two major characters downstage, she undercuts it severely with an unnecessary distraction upstage. There we have two additional characters, viewed behind a glass panel, singing and offering comments on events for almost the entirety of the play’s relatively brief and intermissionless running time. It’s not only weird and off-putting but counterproductive to what is, at its center, a lovely piece that needs no embroidery.

Austin Pendleton and Angelina Fiordellisi upstage; Uli Schlesinger and Francesca Carpanini downstage

The play opens with the legendary and ubiquitous Austin Pendleton (playing a character listed in the program as “Austin”) and Angelina Fiordellisi (Angelina), warbling 1937’s “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal. Holding microphones, they croon the song while a large screen TV offers the lyrics for the audience to read, Karaoke-style. Then, the play begins properly in 1944 German-occupied France in the city of Chartres where we meet Otto (Uly Schlesinger), soon-to-be-revealed as a Hitler youth, waiting for Elodie (Francesca Carpanini), a French girl with whom he is smitten. Dressed in his underwear and lying on a mattress on the floor, Otto is excited to see Elodie, who enters with an egg that she tells him contains a chick about to hatch (think Chekhov and his admonition about guns revealed early in the action of a play). As they create a nest within a shoe by ripping feathers from a pillow, their act of tenderness is in stark contrast to what we are well aware is going on outside the small apartment. Their dialogue is smart, their relationship complicated, and Schlesinger and Carpanini cannot be faulted. They are age-appropriate, fully committed and make an unusual and touching pair. However, the constant interruption both vocally, and later physically, by the older couple is a genuine problem.

Uli Schlesinger and Francesca Carpanini

This inexplicable choice lies fully at the playwright’s doorstep, in spite of director Jack Seiro’s sensitive work. Gently exposing Otto and Elodie’s search for beauty at the bitter end of the long siege of war, he guides the two actors in moments of raw tension, grimly underscored by one of them being a Nazi. But the concept of contrasting an older man and woman, unrelated to the young lovers, who sing Karaoke (of all things!), is neither ironic nor effective. Not only do the lyrics projected overembellish emotions already on display, but they run a range of styles from different eras that only serve to pull us out of the period. Although opening with the appropriate “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” from 1937, other songs include Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” (“Thunder Only Happens When It’s Raining”) and Adele’s “Someone Like You.” 

Enough good things, however, cannot be said about the performances by Schlesinger and Carpanini. The role of Otto requires the difficult task of making an audience care for a young man indifferent to the suffering of others, yet in genuine pain over his conflicted feelings for his lover, which Schlesinger admirably fulfills. As Elodie, Carpanini manages an equal challenge of balancing naïve frivolity with that of a young woman’s confusion, and even empathy, when she discovers all-too-late who her lover is at his core. 

Uli Schlesinger and Francesca Carpanini

Perhaps there are those who won’t be bothered and possibly even charmed and intrigued by the schizophrenic nature of this production. At a swift eighty minutes, there are scenes of beauty in This Beautiful Future. It’s a shame that some of them are circumvented by some misguided detours along the way.

This Beautiful Future. Through October 30 at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street at Barrow Street, Greenwich Village). 

Photos: Emilio Madrid