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Sweet Millennial Cheer 

"The Falling Girl" and "The Kitchen Side of the Door."

Wednesday, Dec 22 1999
If I'm reading our general mood right, the 21st century is about to dawn in America with the same unfounded optimism that ushered in the 20th. Most of us who aren't raving, apocalyptic millenarians have to admit to feeling -- vaguely, and for no good reason -- hopeful. This description at least fits the mood of Word for Word's Winter Festival. Instead of reprising its chestnut-y Child's Christmas in Wales, the troupe has decided to put on a pair of short stories that refer to the looming new year. The brief opening piece is about a young woman watching her life recede as she placidly falls from a skyscraper. The main story is about the harried kitchen staff in a New York hotel on New Year's Eve. Both carry strong suggestions of skepticism about the future, but the evening ends in a soft optimistic glow.

"The Falling Girl" is a fable by the Italian writer Dino Buzzati about a 19-year-old named Marta who steps from the roof of a skyscraper, full of hope and expectation. A brightly lit city sprawls below; people drink cocktails and dance; men try to flirt with her as she floats past the windows. "Flights of that kind (mostly by girls in black) were not rare in that skyscraper," the narrator explains. Marta's plummet takes an oddly long time, and soon she notices younger, prettier rivals falling even faster to the streets. After a while her hope fades. After another while she hits the ground.

The story makes a point about the illusion of time, emphasized onstage by alarm clocks on a surrealistic checkerboard set. Nancy Shelby plays Marta with a wide-eyed enthusiasm, lifting her skirt to suggest falling as she marvels at the city lights. Demetrius Martin and Susan Harloe play not just people in the skyscraper but also the skyscraper itself: They lock themselves together and pose as a tall, narrow thing. Director Delia MacDougall (with help from Stephen Pelton) has worked in movement routines to evoke falling, and the result is a sweet but strangely weightless confection, a literary idea about doom with no attending pathos.

But it sets up the main story, Edna Ferber's "The Kitchen Side of the Door," which shows a New Year's Eve celebration from the perspective of a hotel restaurant in Manhattan. It's around 1910, and an ethnic mix of waiters and other workers are busting their asses for the rich. The focus of the story is a fastidious woman named Gussie Fink, who has to inspect every plate of food before it leaves the kitchen. She's hated by Tony the Crook, a waiter who tries to steal sirloins, but in love with "Henri," a waiter whose real name is Heiny. Class issues are everywhere: While glittery New Yorkers gorge themselves and get drunk in the restaurant -- "The heavy blonde in the inevitable purple drapery," says the narrator, "showed signs of wanting to dance on the table" -- we watch the people who serve them, and notice that even within the kitchen there are distinctions. Waiters, for example, are higher than kitchen checkers, at least in the sense that businessmen have higher profiles than government clerks. And Heiny has seemed out of reach to Gussie since he was promoted to waiter.

"Kitchen Side" is a busy tale of unrequited love, played out almost incidentally while everyone rushes back and forth. It's a chance for Word for Word to show off its movement skills, as opposed to the company's established knack for navigating a layered plot (since there isn't much plot). Leslie McCauley directs with a nice brisk tempo; Tom Segal's choreography is tight. Nino DeGennaro stands out as Tony the Crook, twirling on his heels, his mouth set grimly; Patty Silver is brilliantly crusty as Tillie the Scrub Woman and also as Gussie's mom; JoAnne Winter does an effectively prim and starch-collared Gussie. But the troupe overall has done better work. Last summer's "Friend of My Youth" was actually moving; "Kitchen Side" just ends up tasting sweet.

The troupe's mission is to utter every word of the stories it stages, and one of its most interesting problems is deciding which characters should deliver which lines of text. Dialogue is easy, but who recites all the prose? "Kitchen Side"'s noise and chaos make the game more fun than usual. Hurrying characters deliver fragments of sentences, so that when the staff takes turns describing Gussie, for example, we get a clear sense of who feels what about her. (Tony the Crook sourly recites the line about her "sharp eye," for example.) The strategy is normal for Word for Word, but it works especially well here and almost makes up for the lack of plot.

Between the Ferber and Buzzati stories, Loren Nordlund accompanies two other actors on the piano in a pair of old-fashioned love songs. They set a tone, or an era, for "Kitchen Side," but otherwise come out of nowhere. It's another incongruous touch of sweetness in a program that plays with New Year's-skeptical material but reduces, at last, to cozy holiday cheer.


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