“Alice Trillin, a gifted writer, educator, film producer, activist on behalf of cancer patients, and muse to her husband, the humorist Calvin Trillin, died September 11, 2001, at age 63, from complications due to treatment for lung cancer diagnosed 25 years earlier.”
Paris made the mistake of falling for a goddess (Helen), hardly a relationship of equality. Romeo and Juliet were starry-eyed kids. Dante only met Beatrice twice. Antony and Cleopatra had agendas. Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo were congenitally unfaithful…Whose story is comparable to this clear-eyed, adult love for the ages? Perhaps John and Abigail Adams, apparently respected and devoted friends who both raised a family and attended to considerable outside demands or Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, constant against severe societal objection. I’ll take Calvin and Alice Trillin.
Full disclosure: I’ve had a crush on Calvin Trillin since I began reading his prolific output many years ago. Alice was alive then. Like most of the author’s female fans, I was jealous. It should be noted that despite the fact Trillin declares he wrote everything for Alice, the entire oeuvre is not about his wife. He did, however, write a great deal about her and about the family. Many of the condolence letters Trillin received were from emotionally invested readers who began, “Even though I never really knew Alice…”
Once Alice asked whether her husband was concerned their daughters would grow up and write about him. “I meant to tell you, when they were 5 and 8 and you were off at a meeting, I made them sign a nondisclosure. Nothing elaborate…trust daddy, sign here…” Trillin responded.
On stage, Alice (Carrie Paff) first appears in the background, conjured, it seems, by sheer will. And then she talks back. As Trillin (Jeffrey Bean) narrates, he steps in and out of history, occasionally reading from a letter or reciting a poem. His mate, in constant motion, enters and exits up aisles, fluidly changing clothes (and wigs), illuminating time and place. She also, at times, speaks for herself – from her own writing.
Alice was the kind of woman highway police would let go with a warning and gave young men “the vapors,” such a looker even Trillin’s friends wondered at her choice. (Smart humor is a powerful aphrodisiac.) She was the first girl he introduced to his parents, but only by her first name. At dinner, his mother kept beginning sentences with, “In our religion dear…” until Alice mentioned she had a Jewish mother. Trillin pointed out that in accordance with Hebrew law, even if her father were Billy Graham, she’d be considered a member of the faith.
Her husband affectionately called Alice “a fancy eastern girl” without expensive needs. She was the family voice of reason with time and energy for everyone – everyone, even relatives of friends of friends. The two compared themselves to George Burns and Gracie Allen, only she was George and he, Gracie.
Alice could keep up. She was a fine writer and an excellent editor, first to see rough drafts of Trillin’s work. We see them meet. Conversation is droll. He’s sweetly trying to impress. Vignettes show her expansive and low key. Opinionated. A confirmed optimist. A dedicated mother. This is not the stuff from which high drama derives, it’s real life. Think European film before the Hollywood remake.
And then Cancer hits. The specter is dealt with, specialists consulted, illness treated. Necessary conversations ensue. Alice seems fine. Life resumes for twenty five years. She again gets sick. Truth sinks in. It was more ok, she thought, to die this second time around. During the first, she’d “forseen their (her children’s) adoring, but occasionally absent minded father getting the wrong kind of sneakers or losing track of their dental appointments…”
Tremendously candid about her battle, Alice authored some wonderful articles. “The best description of the feeling,” she wrote in one, came from a friend “…who had said to her husband, years earlier, that if anything happened to her she’d certainly expect him to marry again, particularly because he would need help raising their children. Then she paused for a beat, and added, ‘Just don’t sleep with her!’”
The Trillin family motto is, “Pull up your socks (and get on with it).” “In other words,” Alice says, “don’t kvetch.” A well meaning shiksa, she charmingly mispronounces the word. We see Trillin at her hospital bed and hear some of what was said. It was paramount to Alice she be at her second daughter’s wedding.
About Alice, like the 20o6 book which expanded a New Yorker article, is a vivid portrait of soulmates and wrenching loss written without rose-colored hyperbole or histrionics. It admittedly eschews irritations and arguments – likely because they didn’t cause damage and weren’t, in fact, the point. Some difficulties, however, would’ve added dimension. When the two have disparate memories of the same event, welcome sparks appear. What it does feature, in spades, is deep admiration, signature bemusement, and an attempt to more fully share. The play is a memoir. As such, it’s charming, amusing, and painful.
Jeffrey Bean looks very like Calvin Trillin. He emulates the author’s cadence, reflective pauses, casual bearing, and duplicates familiar gestures like a hand smoothing down hair at the back of his head and one in a pocket. The actor registers emotion in nuanced fashion much as we imagine Trillin himself would. Comic timing is impeccable. Ardor palpable. An immensely sympathetic performance.
Carrie Paff’s Alice is sexy, savvy, quick and warm. She knows what she’s got and what Trillin has as well. A graceful woman, the actress covers territory like a gazelle, yet manages to always appear unrushed and natural. Paff creates a character that teases with affection, confidently lobs back, and faces death with dignity. It feels like a credible depiction. Chemistry is lovely.
Director Leonard Foglia approaches material with sensitivity and a sense of unfussy visual aesthetics. With only two chairs and a table, scenes flow one into the next, never losing us. Characters are given time to think and feel, not just quip.
“…in a sense, Alice is co-author of the play.” Calvin Trillin
Projection Designs by Elaine J. McCarthy are aptly subtle. Costumes are flattering and descriptive (David C. Woolard)
Opening Photo by Henry Grossman
Theatre For A New Audience presents
About Alice by Calin Trillin
Directed by Leonard Foglia
Polonsky Shakespeare Center 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
NEXT: Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare March 17-April 28