According to playwright Joshua Ravetch, more than 100 planes have simply disappeared in the last 50 years. This mystery inspired One November Yankee, an interesting but bumpy ride (and East Coast premiere) at Delaware Theatre Company.
Dominated by a yellow Piper Cub onstage (its call sign letters from the NATO phonetic alphabet title the work), this two-hander tells three intertwining brother/sister stories. Each sibling set is played by well-known actors Harry Hamlin (Ralph, Harry, Ronnie) and Stefanie Powers (Maggie, Margot, Mia). Ravetch’s script explores family frictions and weaves unexpected connections.
As the play opens, Maggie—a curator at the Museum of Modern Art who has awarded a lucrative commission to her artist brother Ralph—is having second thoughts as his artwork is being unveiled. The next scene flashes backward: Harry and Margot, flying to a wedding, regain consciousness at their crash site. The play then shifts forward as—just prior to the gallery opening—hikers Ronnie and Mia discover the crash in the Vermont woods.
Failure to explore
Ravetch’s arresting premise is filled with nascent ideas (unfortunately) not deeply explored. The relationship of sibling pairs is fruitful territory, and the playwright poses intriguing and surprising interconnections. He winningly (often humorously) creates character foibles and dialogue motifs that recur in differing ways from scene to scene. But these potentially rich situations are often glossed over for laughs or made over-obvious through repetition.
This is due to Ravetch, who also directs. He has helmed star vehicles—for Randy Gardner (previously at DTC), Carrie Fisher, Dick Van Dyke—and scripts. But a playwright is seldom his most effective director. Staging his work, Ravetch squanders the opportunities he himself created where his actors might connect for deeper dramatic import. He substitutes confrontation, quickly won détente, or a barrage of dialogue, requiring Powers and Hamlin to move quickly on. The push of dialogue seems more important than the characters or situations he’s ably created, and Ravetch often leaves the duo emotionally starved or artistically stranded, glossing over moments that could allow these actors—who definitely know what they’re doing—to actually do it.
Hamlin and Powers
The two are best-known for their large- and small-screen careers—Hamlin for L.A. Law; Powers for Hart to Hart; both for much TV and film. But each also has theatre provenance: both started onstage—Hamlin as the boy Alan Strang in the West Coast premiere of Equus and Powers as a dancer with Jerome Robbins—and their body of theater work includes intimate shows like this and large productions like the Broadway revival of Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing (Hamlin) and London’s West End revival of The King and I (Powers).
It’s a great pleasure to see these two screen stars working onstage in real-time, clearly in tandem, and their work is an excellent reason to see this play. They create three distinct sets of characters and relationships with craft and commitment that are apparent, substantial, and convincing.
A shorter format
The show could be more fully helped by its design and stagecraft. The yellow plane center stage is visually arresting, but neither the scenic designer (Dana Moran Williams) nor the sound designer (Lucas Campbell) creates a vivid sense of place in changing locations. For example, in the Museum of Modern Art opening, but there is no sense of the MoMA crowd’s anticipatory buzz or the sense that the museum is a respite from the city’s bustle.
Four vertical screens across the back of the stage are used peripherally and ineffectively in the opening. Videos above stage right sometimes show the passage of time. But arbitrary interludes of period graphics or flight footage don’t advance the story—commenting on aviation, a theme only offhandedly addressed in the script.
The music is a pastiche of songs about flying from various periods, at first tantalizing, but they don’t further the drama. And the oddly romantic cinematic theme during two scene changes underscores beautiful vistas, images that actually highlight the visual paucity onstage.
The show was developed at the Pasadena Playhouse, and Hamlin (who is from Pasadena) has been with it since the beginning. It then played in Los Angeles, where it was originally in two acts with an intermission. Here, it’s been condensed to 90 straight-through minutes. It might benefit from returning to its original format, allowing deeper exploration during its four scenes (one locale is revisited) and letting Ravetch’s interconnections and situations more deeply affect actors and audiences as well.
What, When, Where
One November Yankee, written and directed by Joshua Ravetch. Through November 10, 2019 at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington. (302) 594-1100 or delawaretheatre.org.
DTC is a wheelchair-accessible venue with wireless assistive listening and large-print programs available. If you require wheelchair seating, notify the box office when ordering tickets. Details online.