Sunday, May 7

Theater Review: The Phoenix Theatre: The Open Hand

Guest Review: John Simmons

The Open Hand Phoenix Theatre Now Through May 14

Robert Caisley’s The Open Hand is a play filled with surprises – and that may be part of its undoing.

The play opens simply enough with two friends, Allison (Leah Brenner) and Freya (Julie Mauro) lunching at an expensive Asian restaurant. When Freya rushes out to a super-important job interview, Allison is stuck with a check she cannot pay because she can’t find her billfold. Suddenly, a dapper middle-aged stranger named David Nathan Bright (nicely played by Charles Goad) appears and gives Allison both the money for the check and an umbrella for the rain that is pouring down outside … all without asking for a thing in return.

After that, The Open Hand becomes a play in three parts. Part I channels the comic banter from classic sitcoms (the old Dick Van Dyke Show comes to mind) where we learn about the trials facing Allison in her relationship with her talented-but-edgy boyfriend, Todd (Jeremy Fisher), and Freya in her relationship with her laid-back-but-unhappy boyfriend, Jack (Jay Hemphill). Allison, in particular, struggles with expressing her emotions and accepting love from others. She also has a birthday fast approaching … but Allison never, ever celebrates her birthday.

A chance meeting in the park with David Nathan Bright and Allison’s decision to invite him to her “not-birthday” party (two of the play’s somewhat awkward contrivances) lead us into the play’s hilarious and dramatic Part II. David’s seemingly endless affability and generosity lead to feelings of suspicion, jealousy and, finally, anger among his fellow party-goers, as they try endlessly to discern his “real” motives. Here, The Open Hand asks a great question: Have we become so insecure and competitive as a society that we can no longer accept simple acts of kindness from one another? Are we that cynical?
That question goes unanswered, as the play’s closing act moves it away from being a comedy of manners and more towards a story about personal forgiveness. Allison’s birthday-averse behavior and emotional rigidity, it seems, are the results of a traumatic event from her past, an event that is so traumatic (and, like other plot twists, somewhat contrived) that it almost feels like “too much”.

Phoenix’s The Open Hand is a marvelously well-told tale. The cast are all excellent, and Jeffrey Martin’s revolving set − which does quadruple duty as a restaurant, two city apartments and a townhouse – is a wonder to behold. It’s just that, with one too many plot twists on the part of the playwright, you may find yourself wanting a more satisfying resolution to the tale.

Images: Phoenix Theatre

Elizabeth J. Musgrave writes two magazine food and wine columns: Destination Dining and White Linen & Corks,and is a travel, features, food and wine writer, travel and food photographer, and performing arts and restaurant critic. Catch her as the Travel & Leisure Adviser on FOX59 Morning News Show. She also is a speaker, consultant and trainer for hospitality, travel and luxury businesses, P.R., and tourism groups, as well as a radio and television guest and host. Follow her on Twitter @GottaGo, LinkedIn and Facebook.

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