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Stage review

Plenty of ghosts, but the spirit’s not quite right

Lea Thompson is as perky and winsome as ever as Caroline (here playing Laika the space dog) in the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s production of “Caroline in Jersey.’’ Lea Thompson is as perky and winsome as ever as Caroline (here playing Laika the space dog) in the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s production of “Caroline in Jersey.’’ (T Charles Erickson/Photoshelter.Com)
By Sandy MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / August 12, 2009

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WILLIAMSTOWN - Think of all the amusing ghosts who’ve graced the screen and stage over the past century: Cary Grant in “Topper,’’ that “blithe spirit’’ Elvira, an acerbic John Barrymore as imagined by Paul Rudnick. The particular shade envisioned by Melinda Lopez for her new play “Caroline in Jersey,’’ debuting at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, unfortunately does not belong among that scintillating company.

Will (played by Will LeBow) is a former accountant found moping about a drab New Jersey apartment owned by his middle-aged daughter Mimi (Brenda Wehle). He has clearly done something appalling to earn this purgatory, and the playwright strews false clues. What she fails to do is create a compelling reason for us to care about his fate.

The apartment’s latest tenant, Caroline (Lea Thompson, pretty much as perky as the title character in the similarly named TV series for which she is known, “Caroline in the City’’), appears to take his presence in stride, once the initial shock has subsided. This Caroline is a down-on-her-luck New York actress, on the lam from a failed marriage (her director husband has thrown her over for an acting student) and doing her best to start over.

The initial setup is sitcom-cute, but Lopez tosses in so many tragic curveballs, the upshot is bathos. The problem of inconsistent tone aside, the playwright’s fingerprints are evident in every turn of the plot: One can’t help feeling manipulated.

Caroline is prepping for a role in a new off-off-Broadway musical, “PETZ - with a Z,’’ by her - first cliche alert - gay best friend David (Matt McGrath). A lampoonable concept, yes? That’s what we’re given to believe. But by Act 2, when Caroline sings her big number as Laika, the first dog the Soviets launched solo in space, we’re meant to melt at the thought of this poor lonely creature, whose sole desire was to please.

That’s Caroline’s failing as well. She is way too understanding when it comes to her errant spouse, even - especially! - when, fueled by Lucky Charms and tequila, she’s drunk-dialing him at 3 a.m. David does his best to quash this tendency; eventually Will the ghost chimes in as well, advising her to “move on.’’

It takes Lopez quite a while to tease out the reason that Will hasn’t succeeded in doing the same. He claims to be a murderer - a false impression enhanced by Mimi’s paranoia about the prying press (she suspects Caroline of being an undercover reporter). The sad fact is that even amid this heavily laid-on aura of supposed sin and mystery, these characters just aren’t all that colorful or captivating.

Wehle at least manages to bring in a gust of human vitality with every entrance, even if she’s conceived as some kind of staple proletarian flash-frozen since the kitchen-sink dramas of the ’50s. LeBow also lends real warmth to a thinly fleshed-out role; plus he’s a deft pianist, fun to listen to as he noodles old tunes. McGrath nicely downplays the stereotype of tetchy theater queen whose tossed-off quips presumably mask a heart of gold.

But it’s Thompson who has to do the heavy lifting, and she’s just not up to the task. She banks on her winsomeness, which might just work - she’s awfully cute in that space-dog suit - if Lopez hadn’t burdened Caroline with a Deep Dark Secret, held in reserve for Act 2’s big reveal.

As audience members, we need to be led to imagine not only what’s right before our eyes, but the world that the characters see. Thompson may go through the motions, but it’s easier to believe in the ghost who stands before us than in the hidden trauma that has hurt Caroline so much - or, for that matter, in the New Jersey that lies, noisily, right outside her window.

This is a play circling, like Laika, in empty space.

CAROLINE IN JERSEY Play by Melinda Lopez

Directed by: Amanda Charlton. Set, Andrew Boyce. Lights, Jake DeGroot. Costumes, Emily Rebholz.

At: Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, through Aug. 16. Tickets: $35-$37. 413-597-3400, www.wtfestival.org

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