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Vincent’s ‘Amateurs’ is the mother of all productions

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The little table lamp with its beaded shade spoke of the 1930s, the overstuffed sofa and armchair and the coffee table with the cabriole legs of the 1940s or 1950s, the soggy, Thomas Kincaid-ish painting of the 1980s. The very well-stocked bar at the back of the stage suggested that these characters drink more than George and Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," which is impossible. While the audience waited, songs were played from the Golden Age of Movies: Judy Garland and Fred Astaire singing "We're A Couple of Swells," Ruby Keeler trying to sing "42nd Street." I expected a sort of quasi Noel Coward drawing room farce.But "Amateurs" is none of that. This funny and sad play is set in the present, during an opening- night party thrown by an ebullient young teacher named Dorothy (Dawn Marie Wood) for her friends, who are members of an amateur acting company. The civilians in the group include Dorothy's pixilated husband Charlie (played by Vincent, who's also the director) and her fellow teacher, the nebbishy Nathan (Joseph Schweigert), who shows up in a sweater, chinos and red velvet bow tie. The guest of honor is the critic Paul Cortland (played by the magisterial Bob Acerno). The actors are aspiring playboy Wayne (Lawrence Hoffman), the sexy, wisecracking lead actress Jennifer (Jennifer DiMatteo), Irene Chilmark (Bonnie Sassower) and her vulgar husband Ernie (Jim Thomas) who we know is bad news when he shows up with a trash basket on his head and barking like a seal. Mona (Sarah Marcisak), Wayne's loopy, much younger girlfriend, also makes an appearance, as does Horace, Nathan's creepy Howdy Doody puppet, who, believe it or not, comes to play an important role in the proceedings.Dorothy's party, of course, doesn't go well from the beginning. Even before anyone arrives, Charlie keeps turning off the lights in the living room as soon as she turns them on; he spends the rest of the evening hauling chair after chair in to the room until it's hard for anyone to maneuver. (But we learn that his madness, though comic, has tragic origins). The play everyone's celebrating is a bit of a mess. One of the characters has a heart attack that's so violent that the chips and dips from the coffee table almost landed in my lap -- I'm not sure that this was intentional. Ernie turns out to be even more of a brute than he looks, and Mona breaks up with Wayne once and for all. It all seems a metaphor for everyone's life, especially Dorothy's. If an amateur is a person who does a thing wholly out of love, then she's the mother of all amateurs. As Nathan says, "Dorothy, she's real kind." This good and nurturing woman doesn't deserve her beloved and loving husband's craziness, or the terrible thing that happened to them years before, to say nothing of her guests keeling over into her hors d'oeurves or turning vicious. Wood's performance is brilliant and devastating.All of the actors are good. DiMatteo brings out the decency and loneliness beneath Jennifer's slinky exterior. Hoffman conveys not only Wayne's egotism but the sadness of a man who can't seem to make it either in love or work. Sassower, for all her roaring at her appalling husband, lets the audience know that she loves him anyway. Marcisak is sweet and tender as Mona, while Thomas makes you want to kick Ernie's teeth in; that Dorothy has ever felt affection for him at all makes you realize the bigness of her heart. Acerno dominates any scene he's in by his sheer, bearish gravitas, and Schweigert is splendid as the nervous, lonely, grateful Nathan. Even the other guests, world weary as they are, recognize his essential sweetness. Vincent breaks your heart and makes you laugh as the ruined Charlie and his direction of this large cast is vigorous."Amateurs" will be at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone, 15-43 149th St., until May 15. Call 718-391-8697 for more information.

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