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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 16, 2018

Hugh Dancy, Talene Monahon, and Stockard Channing
Photo by Joan Marcus

Let us heap accolades upon Stockard Channing, who finds a pulse and thrillingly breathes life into Alexi Kaye Campbell's Apologia, a somewhat squishy play opening tonight at the Laura Pels Theatre. In it, the playwright invites us to consider the personal price paid by one of the generation of determined women who devoted themselves lock, stock, and barrel to gender equity and political activism in the 1960s and 1970s.

Much has changed since Apologia was first produced in 2009, which is when the play takes place. Ms. Channing's character, Kristin, is a woman both of and ahead of her time, a sixtyish radical feminist, a Marxist (though her portrait of Karl Marx is currently relegated to a spot on the wall above the loo), and a renowned art historian who was "woke" long before the age of #MeToo. The action takes place in the kitchen of Kristin's country cottage in England, where she settled as an American expat some forty years earlier both because she was "hungry for a challenge" and because she wanted "an ocean between my mother and myself," a revelatory observation, perhaps, but one that frustratingly is never explained further.

The kitchen, with its solid wood table, bookshelves stuffed with tomes (more books lie in stacks on the floor), and its barely functioning oven, is the gathering place for a get-together in honor of Kristin's birthday. And what a celebration it is, filled with recriminations and the airing of grievances of the sort that are entrenched clichés in such situations. Though Kristin makes an effort to be gracious, her defenses are firmly in place, and her tongue has been sharpened to a fine edge and stands at the ready.

Joining the party are a number of special guests. Hugh Dancy plays both of Kristin's grown sons, Peter and Simon. The eldest is Peter, who is there with his fiancée Trudi (Talene Monahan), a born again Christian, much to Kristin's barely concealed horror (though do ponder the significance of her sons' names, something else that is never discussed). The younger son, Simon, who suffers from depression, doesn't show up until the second half of the play, and both lads bring with them plenty of pent-up anger aimed at their mother who more-or-less deserted them when they were young boys. The guest list is rounded out by Simon's girlfriend Claire (Megalyn Echikunwoke), an actress on a long-running soap opera, and Hugh, an older gay man who is one of Kristin's few close friends.

Mr. Dancy, a very fine actor whose talents are generally underutilized here, does have some splendid emotionally charged moments. He is especially effective in the opening of Act II in which, playing Simon, he talks quietly with his mother about how decimated he was when he and Peter were sent to live with their father while she was out fighting to change the world. The gay friend, Hugh, (another theatrical cliché though charmingly played by John Tillinger), is there mostly to serve as a comedic buffer between Kristin and the others But, really, the play does belong to the women, especially to Kristin and Trudi.

First and foremost is Ms. Channing, who could easily have portrayed Kristin in the bombastic way Deanna Dunagan performed the role of the monstrously narcissistic mother in Tracy's Letts' August: Osage County. But Ms. Channing has dug deeply into this character, showing her to have a credibly human vulnerability underneath the tough outer layers. Likewise, Ms. Monahon makes Trudi, who at first seems to be bent on ingratiating herself to her future mother-in-law, a surprisingly strong match for Kristin, with far more insight than one might ever suppose at first glance.

Unlike Claire, who is at the receiving end of many of Kristin's assaults against the superficial world the actress inhabits, it is Trudi who is Kristin's true heir. She understands that she represents the next generation of women who have benefited from everything Kristin and others in the feminist forefront sacrificed to accomplish, and she is able more than anyone else to get under Kristin's skin. If there is any hope for Kristin to reconcile with either of her sons, it will be through Trudi. And while there is no getting around the weaknesses in the play's thin plot and characterizations, what a showcase Apologia is for Stockard Channing, who gives as textured and layered a performance as you are likely to see for a very long time.

Through December 16
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street
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