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Theater Review ‘Group’ doesn’t shrink from success

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

THE GROUP, by Tom O’Brien. Directed by Chris Messina. Featuring Ean Sheehy, Rosemarie Dewitt, Kevin Patrick Dowling, Christiane Szabo, Jacob Pitts and Paul Megna. An All Seasons Theatre Group production. At the Ensemble Studio Theater. Run ended Aug. 21.

In Tom O’Brien’s "The Group," which last weekend completed a two-week, sold-out showcase stand on the stalwart Ensemble Studio Theatre’s main stage, a tight little band of four help-seekers unite under the guidance of Joan, a fledgling therapist of strikingly good intentions but very little actual experience.

The quartet of patients in the 90-minute, intermissionless play comprise, in fact, the therapist’s first session, and she has kept the group small because of her uncertainties as to whether she’d prove able to handle anything more ambitious.

Joan may be right, in fact, if the shaky state of her marriage to her young husband, Will, is any indication. The problems of the group’s four members so obsess the therapist that she unwittingly allows them to stifle the time she spends with Will, adding immeasurably to his already considerable supply of confusion and frustration.

Actor and now playwright O’Brien is the 29-year-old son of the actor Paul O’Brien. The writer’s mother, divorced from his father, is, in fact, a practicing therapist, which may indicate that Tom O’Brien has been adhering to the age-old writing class dictum about writing what you know about.

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Whatever the reality, "The Group," as lightly but deftly produced by John McCormack’s admirable All Seasons Theatre Group, comes across as a knowing, humane, rather unfinished-feeling comedy well worth further tooling on the part of its earnest young author.

Now in its second operative season, All Seasons has staged work ranging from Clifford Odets’s "Clash by Night" to "Stray Cats," an evening of monologues by Warren Leight, the young playwright whose "Side Man" was last season’s Tony Award winner for Best Play.

In addition, All Seasons has highlighted the work of writers, mainly reasonably young, such as Leslie Lyles, Christopher Durang, Leslie Ayvazian, Nancy Giles and Stuart Spencer.

With minimal staging, which included a few folding chairs, a bare bedroom alcove and a window with a ledge wide enough for a shaky analysand to stand on in what proves not to be an especially suicidal moment, "The Group" proved to be a compassionate look at a little cluster of urban individuals trying to work out their problems in a shared situation in which none of them feel particularly comfortable, under the direction of a professional practitioner who proves to be at least as insecure as the rockiest of her four clients.

Ean Sheehy is the most flamboyant of the patients, eager to spill his innermost secrets and fears, even when no one appears to be listening, apart from the intense Joan, played with grace and sympathy by Rosemarie Dewitt. Kevin Patrick Dowling, an Irish Arts Center veteran, is Lou, whose surface hostility masks a multitude of fears, while the Carrie provided by Christiane Szabo is a casual type not averse to a possible dalliance with a member of the group, despite such a union being strictly against the rules of the therapy world.

As Wesley, a nearly silent teenager reluctant even to be in the presence of his fellow analysands, Jacob Pitts brings an unusually appealing quality to an underwritten role which, under other circumstances, might have gone virtually unnoticed.

Paul Megna, the final member of director Chris Messina’s well-chosen six-actor cast, is, as Joan’s uncomprehending husband, Will, is somewhat sidelined by the innate nature of the role. Nevertheless he comes up with a sympathetic portrait of a young husband who appears to be on the outer edges of his careerist wife’s consciousness, if he’s even there at all.

In Messina’s compassionate direction, and particularly, in the insightful writing of Tom O’Brien, the people of "The Group" emerge as recognizable human beings, even when one of them is lurking on the ledge outside the window of the room the therapist is using for the sessions.

This past season’s "Snakebit," by David Marshall Grant, indicated, among other things, how well an experienced stage actor can write when he bears down on his subject. Taken on any terms at all, Tom O’Brien should be encouraged, which is precisely what John McCormack and his colleagues at All Seasons have done with "The Group."

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