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Drama over laughs 

‘Bertrand Priest’

Arkansas Repertory Theatre

April 29

“Bertrand Priest,” the new production at the Rep, has a cool, off-Broadway feel to it. We gathered from overhearing some of the comments of the local audience after Sunday night’s performance that it might better be suited to the New York crowd who can better relate to such characters as the bombastic Brooklyn producer and the free-spirit psychics who hang out in Greenwich Village.

The play, written by New Yorker Ian Cohen, won the Rep’s 2006 Kaufman and Hart Prize for New American Comedy. As Rep goers have found, winning that prize doesn’t mean you’re in for seeing a laugh-riot. “Bertrand Priest” is more dramatic and sentimental than it is funny, but it’s wonderfully written with lines from a present-day setting that reflect the past; the play’s last lines are simply perfect in their irony. And Matt Walker, as Brooklyn producer Al Steinberg, is downright funny just in his guffawing laugh late in the 85-minute one-act. But we also hear Josie DiVincenzo’s Katrina Chernov, the spiritualist who talks with her snake, repeat the line “Remind me to tell you about that some time” so many times, the laughs for it by the end are for its turned-cheesy style.

Producer Steinberg and actor Dennis Kennedy (Eric Martin Brown, who reminded us of Johnny Drama in “Entourage” in his New Yorker style and his hopes of finding work) open the play at the table of a diner, Al chomping away at a corned beef while Dennis figures a way to ask his old friend, who he hasn’t seen in five years, to loan him the money to pay a group trying to put on a play by Bertrand Priest.

We also venture back into the past, in Katrina’s bedroom, where she and a young man (Mark Fisher, who spends most of his time in boxers) whom she wants to rename Bertrand Priest talk about his destiny: Should he work for his blue-collar dad in New Jersey or follow his dream and talents as a writer? The interplay from both settings is interrupted repeatedly by a video newscast above them that tells of Bertrand Priest’s tragic end — in various ways, and a couple of times at Dennis’ hand. These are Katrina’s dreams.

In the present, Dennis speaks of a spiritual hand guiding him to this new play, and to even meeting Al for lunch. In the past, Katrina and her pet snake work at guiding “Bertrand” to his destiny, though what that is Katrina’s not sure.

Mike Nichols again makes great use of limited space for the sets conveying past and present. Director Brad Mooy has four talented stars in which to convey the message of destiny and dreams, how meetings may not be simply happenstance, and how one decision can change them. Mooy’s selection of music was downright thrilling, especially the piece that leads into the beginning of the play.

It’s plenty to think about and enjoy.

— Jim Harris

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