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Under the influence

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The Ice-Breaker at New Rep; Aunt Dan and Lemon at Merrimack

10/31/2006 2:46:00 PM

THE ICE-BREAKER: Digging into each other’s core, in search of warmth.

A whole lot of thawing goes on in The Ice-Breaker, David Rambo’s stew of global and romantic warming, which is heating up New Repertory Theatre (through November 19). You can start with the freezer compartment of self-exiled palæogeologist Dr. Lawrence Blanchard’s refrigerator, a veritable glacier when opened by interloping post-doc Sonia Milan, who has sought out her mentor in absentia in the Arizona desert, hoping he’ll read her Manhattan-phone-book-size thesis. When a lightning storm causes a power outage, the ice in the old icebox starts to creak and shift like that in the Greenland and Antarctic ice cores into which Lawrence used to drill in search of climate history. Then there’s the glacial melt that has everyone from Al Gore to Sonia herself rightly sounding a warning gun. But the science of climatology is less subject than metaphor in The Ice-Breaker, which is really about two disparate people digging into each other’s core, exposing layers of the past, less in search of ice than warmth. There is a whiff of TV movie in CSI writer/producer Rambo’s play, which is in a “rolling world premiere” that also includes productions in San Francisco and Indianapolis. But the piece is nicely and carefully written and makes more of its academic underpinnings than Proof if far less than Copenhagen. Moreover, at New Rep it is strikingly designed by Alan Joslin (set) and Dennis Parichy (lights) and beautifully acted by an adrenaline rush named Amy Russ and the excellent Will Lyman (who I should say is a friend), who steps out from behind the Frontline mike to take the stage.

The frenetic Sonia shows up at Lawrence’s arid hermitage so full of blab and Ritalin that it takes a while to get the back story. But it seems Lawrence left his field some 12 years earlier following crises both personal and professional, the latter having to do with the distortion of his findings by a colleague to pooh-pooh global warming. And he’s gone as far from “the ice” as he could, cooking his sorrows in the desert and venturing out of his rustic lair only to pump reverence for the vanished Anasazi culture into the minds of junior-college students. Turns out Sonia’s adviser at a New Hampshire university, who has pronounced her thesis “unpublishable crap,” is the same rival academic who helped to discredit Lawrence a decade earlier. And as is demonstrated in a lyrical, later explained prologue, the connection between Sonia and Lawrence goes back even farther, though he’s not aware of it. When condemned as a teenager to Outward Bound for a fiery act of vandalism, she was shipped to Antarctica, where she tripped over his lost journal, an ode to the cosmic “symphony” of time and weather that ignited her own passion for science. Ten years later, she’s come to give it back to him.

But Sonia and Lawrence are fire and ice — she has a higher body temperature than most people, whereas he cannot get warm, even in the squelching desert, where he eschews air-conditioning, huddles under blankets, and seems to exist on fine red wine and hot coffee. At first their interaction is awkward; it’s as if the Energizer Bunny had stumbled into a tomb and the corpse didn’t know quite what to do. In David Zoffoli’s revved yet also poetic production, Russ’s Sonia prods Lawrence (literally) with her thesis, not to mention with her rapidly exuded predictions of a radical climate event. He responds with few words, stealth irony, and a suspicious glower. But once the drilling into each other’s histories begins, Russ’s Sonia becomes less annoyingly speedy and Lyman conveys the intense, almost savage energy of a man recovering from emotional frostbite to confront old pain and new vulnerability.

One might wish the science in which at least one of these two claims to be passionately immersed were more central to the characters’ connection than the soap-opera spark. But if this volatile, global-warming-fueled brushfire in the desert is not entirely convincing, that is not the fault of the New Rep production, which fills the stage with muted color and telling clutter, or of the actors, who are definitely playing with the same chemistry set.


AUNT DAN AND LEMON: Morality as a slippery slope.

A more sinister mentor’s influence wafts like poison gas through Wallace Shawn’s 1985 Aunt Dan and Lemon, which the playwright dubbed “a cautionary tale against fascism.” A revival of this nostalgic look back at unraveling moral fiber was planned for Merrimack Repertory Theatre (through November 19) before artistic director Charles Towers knew that its most profound offstage influence, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, would be back in the news. Watergate scourge Bob Woodward reports that President Bush and VP Dick Cheney have utilized Nixon’s Vietnam guru as an adviser in their conduct of the Iraq War. In the play, which is told from the point of view of Lemon, a sickly young woman whose character was forged by the brilliant and glamorous Aunt Dan, Kissinger is the older woman’s obsession, and on his boxy shoulders she hangs a philosophy that holds, among other dubious declarations, that “the whole purpose of government is to use force. So we don’t have to.”

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