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84, Charring Cross Road

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84, CHARING CROSS ROAD

Chicago Cooperative Stage

Eight years ago, after seeing a production of David Mamet's Lakeboat at the Goodman, I got into a ferocious discussion with a friend over her friend's contention that film was a much better medium for story telling than the stage, because of the intimate view of the action provided by the camera.

At the time I was confounded by her argument. I knew in my heart she wasn't right, but I couldn't quite put my objections into words. Can't lighting achieve the same effect as a close-up? Don't audiences create a movie of sorts in their heads, forming close-ups in their imaginations whenever they focus on one character? No, she argued, theater can never have the immediacy of movies. A theater audience can never feel as close to the actors in a play as a movie audience feels to a movie's stars.

I wish my friend could see Chicago Cooperative Stage's well-conceived, superbly directed production of 84, Charing Cross Road because then she could find out how truly intimate theater can be. Especially in a space as small as Chicago Cooperative's stage, where the performance area is about the size of a large living room and the audience is seated around the perimeter of the space. You can't help but feel close to characters in a play when they stand only a few feet away or literally brush against you as they enter or exit the scene.

Of course, it helps when the play not only encourages such intimacy but actually requires it, as this one, adapted from Helene Hanff's memoir, does. Otherwise, this quiet, gentle, literary story of a bookish New York writer and her 22-year correspondence with a London bookseller would never work. As anyone who has seen the soporific movie version will tell you, this collection of monologues can be quite tedious if you don't already give a damn about Helene Hanff or her English correspondent, Frank Doel.

The charm of Elaine P. Schatzline- Behr's production is that you can't help but care, and care deeply, what happens to these two letter writers, even when what does happen doesn't seem any more dramatic or stageworthy than what happens in our own lives. (In fact, the smaller, more prosaic events in the play--Hanff's changing of apartments, Doel's mention of his children growing up--are far more interesting than the big events such as Britain's horrific postwar recession, King George VI's unexpected death, Queen Elizabeth II's coronation--referred to, but thankfully never dwelled upon, in the story.)

Certainly Ronald Wachholtz's audience-embracing set--which you literally have to walk through to get to your seat--has a lot to do with the production's intimacy. Wachholtz has filled every square inch of the performance space with enough books and shelves and desks to suggest both the store and Hanff's equally crowded apartment. He even goes so far as to hang bookshelves from the ceiling--everywhere you look there are books and more books. Naturally, the presence of all this reading material gives the theater that certain used-book- store aroma. (If there were a used- book store next to the theater, I'm sure it would do land-office business during intermission.)

But Schatzline-Behr's cast, especially Molly Reynolds (as Hanff) and Brian Parry (as Doel), deserve most of the credit for the show's success. How Reynolds was able to bring out all of the prickly, aggressive, opinionated bitchiness of Hanff's character without ever turning the audience against her is a mystery to me. Despite her violent opinions (or maybe because of them) Reynolds's Hanff remains likable and very human.

Brian Parry, in the less challenging role of Doel, deserves note for the subtle life he gives to the reserved but caring bookseller. Reynolds and Parry make a perfectly natural couple onstage, which adds to the play's implied and ever present question: will these two perfectly suited people--separated as they are by the Atlantic--ever get together? The way Doel and Hanff gently handle their books, caressing the leather covers, touching the smooth pages, savoring the smells, speaks volumes not only about the love the two share for books but also about the way books become their means of communicating an unstated love.

I cannot imagine how a filmmaker could have accomplished what Schatzline-Behr has achieved in this tiny Bucktown theater. If only my friend were still living in Chicago, this production might put to rest our eight-year-old argument.

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