Double Negatives

For a production in which the main characters attack artistic and aesthetic clichés with a vengeance, Elisa Abatsis’ Daguerreotypes sure embraces a lot of them. Despite its attempts to window-dress itself with depth, Daguerreotypes is, basically, a mawkish “you-and-me-against-the-adults” love story between two preciously hip and knowing twenty-somethings; they even have really cool names. We’ve seen this formula already this season (Jason Chimonides’ The Optimist comes instantly to mind); and it’s one that usually reveals more about the playwright than the play itself.

We first see Gemma as a precocious seventeen-year old painter with a penchant for philosophical musings straight out of One Tree Hill: “If this was forever, and if this, maybe, didn’t end, like ever, I would-I mean, that could possibly be a good thing…”. Studying at the Hebron Academy boarding school in Maine, Gemma has an affair with forty-something Professor Frodick (played by the seemingly younger Doug Rossi). If you’ve guessed that his surname will later serve as joke fodder, you’re right. Gemma is infatuated with Frodick. He wants her to consider her art school future while she just wants to run away with him and live on love.

Five years pass. Gemma has art shows with Frodick’s help. Frodick commits suicide. Why? We never find out. He even returns several times as a ghost but still he doesn’t tell us. Where is John Edward when you need him?

Artistically blocked by this trauma, Gemma returns to the small town of Chagrin Falls (yes, it’s a real place), Ohio, to become a photographic assistant to the fifty-something Henry, a sensitive guy who works in the understandably struggling cottage industry of stillborn baby photography. Henry, played a bit too stiffly by Alfred Gingold, is the only character in this play capable of profundity. A true artist but a lousy businessman, he’s fond of whiskey and was a former boyfriend of Gemma’s mother, Darcy Applebaum, a finally sober and now fading B-movie actress. Darcy has returned to Henry’s life and reveals an authentic talent for counseling grieving mothers.

Chase, working in Henry’s studio and apparently relegated to obscurity after losing out on an art school scholarship (to Gemma), minces no words in expressing that he wants his new competition gone! Not really, though, because he’s always been, like, in love with her! Like a sixth grader saddled with a crush he can’t handle, Chase constantly hurls nasty insults Gemma’s way; despite this, and on the urging of Frodick’s ghost, she improbably falls in love with him, too.

It’s only near the end of the play that its title takes on significance. A daguerreotype is an early example of photography in which an image is exposed directly onto an appropriate silver coated surface. Daguerreotypes were popular in the nineteenth century, in part because they produced otherworldly, glowing qualities in their subjects. Each daguerreotype is one-of-a-kind; no negatives exist.

The noble Henry insists on shredding the negatives of the stillborn babies whose mothers change their minds about ordering pictures; Chase wants to keep them on file. What this dripping metaphor means to the play is anyone’s guess and all could be correct. The babies’ photographs are one-of-a-kind, caught in a moment. If unpurchased by their parents, they’re gone forever into the shredder.

Jared Morgenstern as the jumpy and socially inept Chase is the clear standout in this production. Something of a cross between Steve Carell and Adam Sandler, Mr. Morgenstern has the comedic chops to give Chase some substance despite his bad lines. He pulls off some of the funnier bits in the play, and dilutes much of the venom in the childish insults directed at Gemma. Storm Garner, as Gemma, simply lacks the range to deflect all the blows engagingly; Gemma remains a one-dimensional character all the way through.

Ms. Abatsis’ script, predictable and, yes, clichéd in far too many places, feels like juvenilia. Nonetheless, it has some bona fide humor and shows flickers of accomplishment and potential. The playwright only touches on the really interesting stuff of this play—Henry and his need to document these failed births—and defaults to the trite relationship mush. The truth is that Gemma and Chase really aren’t that interesting; we’ve seen them before in countless plays about young adults.

Ms. Abatsis has a keen sense for dialogue which keeps up the play’s momentum. Yet, the unacknowledged irony of the play is that, in the end, Gemma, purportedly so headstrong and independent, ultimately depends on two men, one misguided and then dead, and the other envious, bitter and grasping, to tell her how to live her life.

Daguerreotypes is part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival.

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