Presented by the Colleagues Theatre Company at the Neighborhood Playhouse, 340 E. 54 St., NYC, Dec. 9-Jan. 4.
The heart of "Handy Dandy" is the evolution of an unexpected and unlikely friendship. Helen Gallagher, as nun and social activist Molly Egan, and Nicolas Surovy, as the crusty, dissatisfied Judge Henry Pulaski, convey the connection's complexities well. Surovy is tremendously natural. Gallagher's character is spacier, with some less natural, preachy monologues. Still, Gallagher displays a range of emotions, voyaging from a chipper, defiant protester to a vulnerable soul who doubts many of her life decisions.
The preachy monologues were a surprise, as William Gibson, whose track record is stellar, wrote the play. "Handy Dandy" is a "message" work, written to protest nuclear arms proliferation. In the program, Gibson states, "It was not intended for commercial theatre." This may explain the stiffness that sometimes descends on the action.
But while that must be noted, it would be unfair to dwell on it. In the end, the playwright couldn't help himself—the characters and their relationship are more interesting than the protest at the nuclear plant.
Egan is arrested during a protest for trespassing. Pulaski—sympathetic, despite Egan's persistently ignoring court protocol—offers informal advice. Egan insists on saying what she pleases, and when she later runs into Pulaski away from the court setting, a dialogue develops. Egan reaches his long-buried emotional side—his estrangement from his son, his shallow relationships with women. After he recuses himself from the case, he seeks Egan out, both at the facility she lives in and the prison to which she is sentenced. She too confides unexpected things—a worldlier life she ran from in turning to the church. Their friendship is moving.
Ashley Atkinson, Dyanne Court, and Robert Iaerdi supply "offstage voices" of several characters to fill in gaps. Director Don Amendolia has made imaginative use of a bare space and of two talented actors' excellent work at filling it.