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Theater Review: Obie Award-Winning 'Circle Mirror Transformation' Disappoints

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Linda Gehringer, Marin Hinkle, Brian Kerwin, Lily Holleman and Arye Gross in "Circle Mirror Transformation" at South Coast Repertory. Photo by Ben Horak/SCR.


Linda Gehringer, Marin Hinkle, Brian Kerwin, Lily Holleman and Arye Gross in "Circle Mirror Transformation" at South Coast Repertory. Photo by Ben Horak/SCR.
In reviewing, expectations are a big deal. Going into a show with expectations set either too high or too low can ultimately affect one's opinion. For a critic, it's a work hazard, and I try to be cognizant of keeping my expectations in check. However, when a play is being promoted as the winner of "Best New American Play" by the Obie voters, one does hope that perhaps it will be something special. Which leads to me saying that playwright Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation, currently in its West Coast premiere at South Coast Repertory, is pleasant but unfortunately disappointing.

Marty (Linda Gehringer) is running her first "creative drama" class for a local Vermont community center, an endeavor that features theatre games instead of working on plays. Her students include the just-divorced Schultz (Arye Gross), actress Theresa (Marin Hinkle), who's fled New York for the comfort of small town life, withdrawn teen Lauren (Lily Holleman) and Marty's husband, James (Brian Kerwin), who's basically there just to be supportive. Over the course of several weeks, the group gets closer and exchanges secrets, and the class changes some of their lives, but not in ways that they might expect.

Gehringer is convincingly centered as the encouraging and patient Marty, the typical middle-aged hippie teacher, but she also excels when Marty explodes with anger or when she just about collapses with grief after she gets some bad news. Gross takes what could be a somewhat familiar character and imbues him with so much raw emotion that it works no matter what the character does—he’s always compelling. Holleman shakes up the “withdrawn teen opens up via art” trope and makes Lauren interesting through sheer charm; it doesn’t hurt that she gets the funniest moments in the show. Kerwin is bluntly amusing as James, but the subplot involving his daughter feels artificially tacked on. Hinkle is sympathetic as Theresa, but her role as written feels more like a plot device than a fully realized character.

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Director Sam Gold won an Obie for “Best Direction” for this show in New York, but in this production his helming seems professional yet uninspired. Annie Baker’s writing is low-key funny and occasionally dramatic, and her secrets-revealing scene works very well. But this collection of small moments doesn’t add up to anything substantial by the play’s conclusion, and the moments themselves aren’t particularly original. Besides that, the show is tediously paced, with a counting game that becomes excruciating early on, and at two hours without an intermission the play seems long.

This is not a bad show—the actors are very good and the writing is often engaging—but despite the play’s previous plaudits, I found it disappointing.

Circle Mirror Transformation
South Coast Repertory; Julianne Argyros Stage
655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa
Runs Tues.-Sun. 7:45 pm, Sat. & Sun. 2 pm, thru Jan. 30
Tickets $20-66
(714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org