New Laguna Playhouse Production of Catherine Butterfirld's 'Brownstone' Has Flaws, Yet Lingers

we think this scene is set in the 1930s
Ed Krieger/The Laguna Playhouse

Butterfield's Six
New Laguna Playhouse production, Brownstone,  has flaws, yet lingers

It's fitting that John Lennon and the New York City apartment building where he lived the last seven years of his life, the Dakota, both play a small but key role in Catherine Butterfield's new play, Brownstone, receiving its world premiere at the Laguna Playhouse.

A much-quoted line from a song on Lennon's final album, Double Fantasy, provides a perfectly pithy summation of the thread binding the three stories in Butterfield's play: "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."

Each of the stories takes place in the same NYC brownstone, but they occur in different eras: the late 1930s, the late '70s and early 2000s. And while the situations and characters in each tale are vastly different (a spoiled debutante yearning for an expatriate life in Paris and the straight-arrow journalist who tries to make it happen for her; a pair of starry-eyed actresses dreaming of making it big on Broadway; a ferociously ambitious über-couple), each is fundamentally altered by unexpected twists of fate. Some of those twists are out of their control, such as acts of war and terrorism; others are more internal but still unforeseen (greed, pride, mental frailty).

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All serve as wrenches disrupting the lofty dreams and well-plotted careers of Butterfield's three couples. And by play's end, we see that none of the six characters, with one possible exception, will come close to living the lives they imagined at the play's beginning.

The same can be said for Butterfield's play, which winds up delivering a poignant, reflective message after a beginning that seems marred by seemingly uninteresting characters with equally uninteresting stories. The wise-cracking, bored socialite who yearns to sip wine with Parisan intellectuals and her aspiring Edward Murrow suitor seem like they stepped out of It Happened One Night, had Jimmy Stewart played the roguish reporter instead of Clark Gable. And the Midwestern actresses who find plenty of worms in the Big Apple, as well as the career-driven power couple, feel similarly cliché.

Even by the end of the first act, Brownstone seems erected on a dangerously thin foundation. But in the second act, things take a far more dramatic turn, even if some of those turns at first feel wildly erratic, such as the introduction of dementia and 9/11. Yet, somehow, Butterfield incorporates what could come off as heavyhanded plot devices into each of her three stories and winds up telling a quite effective tale of her own.

And what's that story's point? Well, that everyone has a story, and that story is their life. And while that doesn't sound like the most fascinating claim to ponder, the fact that all three of Butterfield's stories take place in the same physical structure over a long interval imbues the proceedings with a sense of connectedness and shared humanity. That regardless of social and political conditions, people still wrestle with similar doubts, fears and sorrows. And that no one can escape the capricious hand of fate.

No, it doesn't make for the most exciting theater. And Butterfield doesn't muster the intellectual smarty-pants attitude that made Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, a play that explored a similar theme, so effectively complex and mesmerizing. Which is why her denouement, in which her three stories finally coalesce into one, seems a bit forced. The building these stories take place in never feels like a palpable force, so when it finally reveals its secrets, the discovery seems undeveloped and tacked on.

But Brownstone tends to linger. And the more you consider it, the more you realize that what's truly important isn't the aging, drafty brownstone that serves as the play's body, but the stories it houses—its soul.

Brownstone at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Moulton Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-2787. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun ., 2 p.m. Through April 27. $25-$65.

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