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Gimme shelter
Ann Randolph’s Squeeze Box

Squeeze Box, the performance piece by Ann Randolph that Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Company has imported from New York (through January 22), is a rambling, sentimental memoir in which Ann, a young woman who works with alcoholics and schizophrenics at a shelter and feels her life is at a standstill, comes to accept that the work she’s doing is worthwhile and defines her. At least, that’s the stated message of the play. But Randolph’s program note, which addresses the way in which the play came out of "a crisis of faith in myself and in my work," focuses mostly on her dream of "sharing my story that waited to so long to be told" with midtown Manhattan audiences, and on the role Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft played in helping her to achieve that goal. So the real story of Squeeze Box is not Randolph’s epiphany at the shelter (she quits her low-paid, unglamorous job and then is stirred by a conversation with one of the women there to return to it — and own up to her musician boyfriend that she isn’t just a part-time volunteer) but the birth of Randolph’s theatrical career.

I wouldn’t dwell on this discrepancy if the play itself didn’t seem disingenuous at every turn. The tone is often angry, but apart from Julie, the shallow Christian woman who runs the group-therapy sessions at the shelter, it isn’t clear who Ann is so angry at. Besides, Julie is so fatuous, and so easily bested by sharp-tongued prostitute Brandy (the most vocal of the women living there), that she hardly seems to deserve Ann’s overstated indignation. Ann keeps presenting her life as shabby — even boyfriend Harold, in the tale of their first sex, on a camping trip, comes across as distinctly bargain-counter — but then at the end she turns around and decides that it’s inherently valuable, and she hears beauty in Harold’s accordion rendition of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Yet the play never acknowledges that Ann was mistaken in underrating him, or her job. The tone just switches — as it does at other times — from unaccountably acerbic to unaccountably life-embracing while Randolph’s voice grows tremulous and the stage takes on the glow of affirmation. Randolph even has the chutzpah to link Copland’s triumph in finding a voice for the working class with her own personal struggle, as if she were among the downtrodden and she — not condescending Julie — were the one who understands and can express the troubles of the women she helps. But how are we supposed to feel about a woman who (again, in her program note) talks about "hit[ting] rock bottom" and writing her way out of it "by continually asking myself some very deep questions" when she’s got a job working with women who are fighting to stay sober or on their meds while her biggest problem is poor self-image?

Some of the tone problem with Squeeze Box may derive from Randolph’s shortcomings as a playwright. She doesn’t have a sense of dramatic structure, so she doesn’t guide the audience toward the point of an anecdote or signal the transition from one to another. And her acting is amateurish. She has a talent for clown faces, but she acts from the waist up; mostly she gesticulates. And even with that limited use of her body, she doesn’t make many — or very interesting — choices, e.g., Brandy waves one arm around (with an implied cigarette at the end of it) while the other one dangles. Randolph’s vocal performance is worse: she slurs words and tends to accentuate the wrong ones (what a voice teacher would call hitting the wrong operatives), so you often have to replay a sentence in your head before you get it. These are fairly common problems in beginning actors, but you don’t expect to see and hear them on a professional stage. Last year in this slot, Merrimack hired Larry Pine to perform his one-man version of Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata. It isn’t fair to compare anyone to the mesmerizing Pine, but I couldn’t help feeling I’d gone from the sublime to the puny.

Issue Date: January 6 - 12, 2006
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