The Lady in Question

Among the many questions that concern playwright Sara Felder in Theatre Rhinoceros' revival of The Lady Upstairs (directed by Mary Coleman) is: Can you mix screwball comedy and its conventions with ethical dilemmas about atomic physics and the persecution of the Jewish people? The short answer is — not so far.

The play is set in the San Francisco apartment of Selma Kaminsky (Laurie Dingler), a cozy, book-lined haven (designed by Pam Peniston) whose dominant feature is a chalkboard covered with formulas. After a prologue that re-creates Kristallnacht, or “the night of the broken glass,” in which the Nazi dogs of war were loosed upon the Jews in Germany, the lights come up on a woman — Lise Meitner (Dingler). Oblivious to the storm troopers outside, she has made the civilization-altering discovery that, contrary to the scientific dogma of the day, the atom can be split, thereby unleashing previously unimaginable power.

The lights (by Wendy W. Gilmore) brighten further, and we are in present time. Lise has become Selma, also a scientist. Her reveries are interrupted by Roberta Rosevelt (Trish Adair), an upstairs neighbor, who is locked out of her apartment and needs to use Selma's phone to call the landlord.

Screwball romances depend on unlikely pairings and accidental events. Think of debutante-ish Katharine Hepburn vs. myopic zoologist Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby. Or the wildly incompatible and narcissistic actors played by Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in Twentieth Century.

In Felder's version, Selma is a Jewish lesbian who reads the New York Times every day, even though she lives in San Francisco. Roberta is a Jewish bisexual who finds such a practice utterly astonishing. Selma is a nuclear physicist whose closest relationship is with a ghost. Roberta is a clerk at the DMV who doesn't seem to understand what an atom is. True to the screwball formula, their acquaintance is brought about (and prolonged) by an absent-minded error.

The laughs in such comedies are culled from the degree of difficulty the lovers encounter in getting together. The best of this genre involve exaggerated responses to problems and huge leaps of personal growth. (Think of Tootsie or any of the Tracy-Hepburn classics.) Everything between them is an obstacle. As love works its magic, the partners must choose each other rather than previously held beliefs or patterns of living.

The problems in The Lady Upstairs arise from the playwright's ambitions, which go far beyond the screwball format. The title, for instance, refers not only to Roberta, but to a feminist version of God. Similarly, Selma must not only be a scientist, she must also represent all Jewry. She comes from Mesopotamia, she says, and she fled with Moses out of Egypt to Palestine. But while Selma embraces her Jewish heritage, she is strangely without community: Her closest companion is the ghost of scientist Leo Szilard (Colin Thomson), who emerges periodically from her bookshelves to talk over the politics of atomic fission.

Roberta has an annoying (and not very good) New York accent, and is intrusive and proudly politically active. Never mind that she seems to understand only the broadest aspects of the beliefs she's willing to risk arrest for, Selma pronounces her “very bright.”

The dance of attraction they begin with each other is credible only if you accept that these women are starved for love. And since no background is given and each seems self-possessed and independent, this is a stretch.

Just as the comedy begins to work, the playwright wraps things up quickly: The potent complication of Selma's working at Livermore, where Roberta participated in a long protest, goes no further than a brief moment. So eager are the lovers to go off into the sunset (or at least the bedroom), they quickly shelve the obstacles to romance. There is no evidence that this relationship will cost either of them anything. The stakes are low and stay low.

That's because Felder isn't really interested in the essential ingredient of romantic (or any other) comedy: the potential for conflict between the two women. She's concerned with the centuries-old problems of Jews; the ethical dilemmas faced by scientists and politicians; and the nature of humankind's relationship to God. All of which are, indeed, very interesting. And as discussed by this gifted and highly intelligent writer, well worth pondering at length. But, however eloquently drawn, if these musings do not arise out of the characters' needs — or do not lead to meaningful action bringing about a resolution to their mutual problem — there's really not much of a play.

Mary Coleman's direction is graceful and sensitive, and interweaves the various time periods and characters (Dingler and Thomson play a variety of historic figures) with admirable fluency. But as hard as she tries to mix the widely disparate elements, the result is something akin to what happens when you shake oil and vinegar: They blend for an instant and then all too quickly separate.

As Selma, Laurie Dingler is bright, appealing, and attractive, but she does not seem particularly lonely or isolated. Her description by her friend Leo as “filled with the despair of the ages” comes as a surprise too close to the end, and her interest in and desire for Roberta seem excessively contrived.

Colin Thomson makes convincing cases for each of his numerous characters (Otto Frisch, a Nazi, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt, along with Leo Szilard). While faithful imitations of historic figures are not his strong point — I only recognized Churchill from the suit and cigar; Roosevelt not at all — Thomson is lively, passionate, and engaging.

In trying to make Roberta a recognizable New Yorker, Trish Adair emphasizes the clichŽs: the accent, the brashness, the — sorry, it's the only way to put it — pushiness. She works very hard to act the conflict without much connection to its underlying need. Consequently, I never felt a night with Selma was anything more than a temporary solution to Roberta's boredom.

It's not really Adair's fault; Felder tries to orient and educate her audience by sticking Roberta with excessive ignorance. (I'm no scientist, but I can't imagine anyone of average intelligence who doesn't know what an atom is.) Adair has nothing to grab hold of but the plot as it marches on.

Which takes us back to the fundamental problem with The Lady Upstairs. Like its double-entendre title, the play has a split personality from which it never really recovers.

The Lady Upstairs runs through Feb. 10 at Theatre Rhinoceros in S.F.; call 861-5079.

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