Review: ‘Alice by Heart’ at MCC Theater Space

By Jonathan Spira on 4 March 2019
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Time doesn’t ever change here. The oversized clock remains at 12 minutes past 9, a paradox, if one were to notice.

We find ourselves in a Tube station in London during the Blitzkrieg. Just like many others, this one serves as a bomb shelter and field hospital, presided over by a nurse (Grace McLean) who wouldn’t be out of place playing Miss Hannand in “Annie,” a somewhat overwhelmed Dr. Butridge (Andrew Kober). Among those seeking refuge are Alice Spencer (Molly Gordon, the daughter of Jessie Nelson, who contributed to the book and is also the director). Her childhood friend, Alfred Hallam (Colton Ryan), who was discovered under the rubble and brought in with tuberculosis and placed in a makeshift quarantine comprised of a single curtain.

When Alice learns that Alfred’s tuberculosis is terminal, she embarks upon a strategy to, if not save him, at least delay the inevitable.

The two retreat into their favorite book, “Alice in Wonderland,” the 1865 Lewis Carroll tale of a girl named Alice (played of course by Alice), a white rabbit (the role assumed by Alfred), a hookah-smoking caterpillar (Heath Saunders), and of course the grinning Cheshire Cat (Tabatha from the shelter, portrayed so brilliantly by Nkeki Obi-Melekwe), all courtesy of the remarkable costumes by Paloma Young and Edward Pierce’s stark and somewhat monochromatic set. This means crossing over into the quarantine before crossing into Wonderland, a step clearly frowned upon by the nurse, who tears the book apart.

No matter. Alice has it memorized and off they go into an almost “Rent”-esque space that redefines Wonderland. Borrowing on the energy that composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater employed in their Tony Award-winning “Spring Awakening” in 2007, the teenage angst in “Alice by Heart” is rooted in Alice’s awakening and what will become her unrequited love of Alfred. Meanwhile, Alfred, in the guise of the white rabbit, who watches time on his pocket timepiece dwindle away.

“I’ve no time left — you understand?” says an exasperated white rabbit to Alice, while adding later on that “Time is chasin’ me still.”

While comparisons to “Spring Awakening” are warranted, “Alice” is somewhat muddled but also more gritty. The haunting ballads of loving and longing sometimes seem to be a stretch but the sheer energy and athleticism of the entire cast makes “Alice” remarkable if bittersweet.

Finally, “Alice by Heart” takes place in MCC’s new theater on West 52nd Street. Designed by Andrew Berman, the space is modern and provides comfortable seating and excellent slight lines.

THE DETAILS

Alice by Heart
Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space
511 West 52nd Street
New York, N.Y. 10019
Runtime: 1 hr. and 30 min
www.mcctheater.org

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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