Time and love explored in ‘Now Circa Then’ 

click to enlarge Local premiere: In TheatreWorks’ amusing production of “Now Circa Then,” Matt R. Harrington and Kimiye Corwin are good as historical re-enactors who mix up their private and characters’ lives. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Local premiere: In TheatreWorks’ amusing production of “Now Circa Then,” Matt R. Harrington and Kimiye Corwin are good as historical re-enactors who mix up their private and characters’ lives.

Amid a plethora of contemporary romantic comedies about young people seeking their identities, New York playwright Carly Mensch’s off-Broadway two-hander, “Now Circa Then,” is a charmer, fresh and inventive.

In its well-cast West Coast premiere at TheatreWorks, Meredith McDonough directs with assured comic timing and just the right degree of gravity.

Margie and Gideon are working as re-enactors at a history museum on the Lower East Side, like the actual Tenement Museum.

New Yorker Gideon (Matt R. Harrington, appealingly awkward and intense), a fanatical history buff, has been working there for a while. Margie (an endearing and physically adept Kimiye Corwin) has just arrived in the Big Apple from Michigan and is not sure what she wants to do with her life.

There’s an immediate conflict of interests and values: not only is Margie stiff and uncomfortable acting out her assigned role, but she says offhand things to Gideon during coffee breaks, like, “People should just get over slavery.”

Gideon implies that in hiring Margie, who’s Asian-American, to play a late-19th-century Prussian immigrant, the museum director is not respecting actual history, which Gideon views as an endemic American problem.

Those initial polarizing issues aside, the play, to its credit, gets more subtle.

Over the months, Margie begins to find answers to her own existential questions by identifying with, and investing herself more fully in, her role as a confused young immigrant in an arranged marriage trying to adapt to the New World.

And as Margie and Gideon become romantically involved, their relationship begins to infringe upon the way they’re portraying their Old World characters, Josephine and Julian.

It all makes for wonderful entertainment, with Margie and Gideon’s off-hours amorous and fractious interactions woven into their formal historical presentation in amusing ways.

And Andrew Boyce’s museum set, encompassing several different rooms, is lavish and exquisitely detailed.

In one scene, a frustrated Margie, overly empathizing with her pre-feminist, housewife character and desperate to sort out her own personal problems, pitches a huge tantrum. Corwin’s got the chops to pull it off believably and hilariously.

In another comic scene, a rejected and depressed Gideon veers wildly off-script to give Julian a hacking cough that leads to the character’s ultimate death from tuberculosis.

At moments, director McDonough pushes the comedy elements too hard, and Mensch’s ending, while convincing and satisfying, meanders on a bit too long. But these are minor flaws in an engaging production.


Now Circa Then

Presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Lucie Stern Center, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes April 1

Tickets: $19 to $69

Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org

About The Author

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts writer specializing in theatre. Some of her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers and small literary magazines. She is an occasional book copy editor and also has a background in stage acting. Her book “The Working Actor’s Toolkit” was published... more
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