‘About Alice’ Theater Review: Calvin Trillin’s Wry, Rueful Look at His Late Wife

Jeffrey Bean and Carrie Paff star in a slender but thoughtful look at the writer’s beloved wife and muse

Last Updated: January 21, 2019 @ 6:26 PM

Some might regard the premature death of their beloved wife to cancer with anger, or bitterness — but Calvin Trillin confronted the 2001 death of Alice Stewart Trillin with a typically Midwestern sense of grief, humor and mixed emotions.

The veteran New Yorker writer and humorist first wrote about his grief in the 2006 memoir “About Alice,” published five years after her death, and now he has adapted it for the stage, in a production that opened Sunday at Brooklyn’s Theater for a New Audience.

Unlike most memoirs adapted for the stage, though, this is not a one-man show — and Alice herself appears, in multiple costume changes, to offer commentary and corrections to the onstage Trillin’s recollection of key events. The hat he says she was wearing when the first me, for instance, she insisted she never owned.

Trillin also incorporates some of Alice’s own letters and essays into the script, crediting her in the Playbill as a kind of co-author. But aside from a few select scenes, like their banter-filled meeting at a Manhattan cocktail party or a conversation in a hospital room after a recurrence of her lung cancer, Trillin never fully dramatizes their relationship in the traditional sense. For the most part, “About Alice” remains a one-man memory play, with occasional interjections from the subject of that one man’s memory.

In that sense, the show is less a two-hander than a one-hander with a giant bauble on the ring finger.

Thankfully, the two stars, under the direction of Leonard Foglia, suggest a fuller, rounded life than seems to exist on the page. Jeffrey Bean perfectly captures Trillin’s rumbled but witty public persona, including his flat-as-the-plains Midwestern monotone. And Carrie Paff manages to seem both luminous and smart in a role that might be considered thankless: Here is a muse whose only flaws (a mild degree of vanity) are not so much embodied as they are described, and quickly dismissed.

Despite its 75-minute running time, “About Alice” can seem a little saggy at times. But for the most part, it’s a wry and rueful tribute to a remarkable woman.