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Theater Review - Widow's weeds

Moonlight and Valentino at Stage Door Players

Art should be therapeutic. Dramas and even comedies about painful events can help audiences vicariously experience life at its worst and, possibly, work through their own tragedies.

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Moonlight and Valentino at Stage Door Players depicts the grief of a young wife (Marcie Millard) shortly after her husband's death. But rather than let the action flow naturally, playwright Ellen Simon (daughter of Neil Simon) seems to be ticking off plot points gleaned from a psychology text. Despite autobiographical details and the sincerity of Stage Door Players' cast, Moonlight and Valentino feels more like a clinical experiment than a real-world tragedy relieved by laughter. The source of a Whoopi Goldberg/Gwyneth Paltrow film from 1995, Simon's play begins with Rebecca (Millard) returning from the hospital after her husband's death in an auto accident. Three of Rebecca's friends rally around her to spend a week that's part slumber party, part group therapy meeting. Rebecca's fashion-conscious sister, Lucy (Samantha Bentley), her New-Agey friend, Sylvie (Cathe Hall Payne) and her female executive/stepmother, Alberta (Josie Burgin Lawson), have predictably mismatched personality types.

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Throughout the play, Alberta practically badgers Rebecca to face her grief, her motherly concern seeming almost sadistic. At least Lawson respects the abrasive character too much to unnaturally soften the role. Generally, director Barbara Cole Uterhardt and the cast underplay the comedy, which comes as a relief, as overly schticky hijinks would undermine the play's seriousness. Millard struggles to rise above some awful, would-be poetic lines like "He gave his hands to me, and they were mine."

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Act Two lightens up a little when Alberta hires a beefcake house painter (Bradley Bergeron) who doesn't speak English. The women nickname him "Valentino" — a detail that, coming in the midst of a national debate on how to treat immigrants, feels remarkably condescending. At least the scenes in which the women ogle and share fantasies feel like the casual, spontaneous conversation of real, mature women, and become the least contrived parts of the play. In general, Moonlight and Valentino takes the old actor's rule "Dying is easy; comedy is hard" and turns it upside down.

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Moonlight and Valentino. Through June 11. Stage Door Players, 5339 Chamblee Dunwoody Road. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. $18-$20. 770-396-1726. www.stagedoorplayers.net.