The play ruefully concludes that in life, as in the movies, the remake is never as good as the original version.


Tiny Island

Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St., through Jan. 4, 922- 8900, and People's Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, Jan. 14-Feb. 15, (610) 644-3500

Two little girls, Hazel and Muriel, sit in the projection booth of their father's movie house on the Main Line, pretending that they are in a two- seater airplane and that the whir of the projectors is the thunder of propellers, playing a game of navigator and pilot that they had played with their late mother.

In that same projection booth, to the whir of the same projectors, Muriel, working with her older sister at the candy counter, is kissed for the first time - by Hazel's boyfriend Norm, a greasy 17-year-old projectionist - while playing the pilot-navigator game she used to play with her sister and mother. As they kiss, Wings Over Water plays, in 3-D, on the big screen, with Charlotte Ayres as Amelia Earhart and Philip Archer as her navigator, promising her "I will love you to the stars, I will love you to the bottom of the sea," as they aim their sputtering airplane toward a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific.

It's 1984. The movie house, gone to seed, plays revivals of classic films to dwindling audiences (Wings Over Water is scheduled for the next night) while the video store across the street is jammed. Hazel (Alda Cortese) and Muriel (Carla Belver) haven't seen each other in 31 years; Hazel has separated from her husband; Muriel, who married the greasy projectionist, has rushed back to Philadelphia, into the projection booth, and into Hazel's life, because she's begun to hear voices - the voices of the two little girls playing pilot and navigator, the voices of Wings Over Water, the voices of the person she was and the people she pretended to be.

You can see in all this the strengths and weaknesses of Michael Hollinger's new play, Tiny Island, receiving its world premiere at the Arden Theatre in a co-production with People's Light & Theatre Company.

On the plus side, there's the intricacy of the cinematic and meta- cinematic metaphors: the romance that gets played out simultaneously in the children's game, on the silver screen, and in the projection booth; the sense that the events of the past can be replayed, the dialogue recited over and over, but can neither be truly relived nor altered; and there's the rueful conclusion (and the running gag throughout the play) that, in life, as in the movies, the remake (King Kong, The Prisoner of Zenda) is never as good as the original version.

These cinematic metaphors reach their peak of intricacy and intensity when, late in the play, we see the scene of Muriel's first kiss in the projection booth for the second time, and Muriel, hallucinating, watches her younger self (Suli Holum) being swept away by Norm the projectionist (Kevin O'Donnell), and enters the scene herself, debating with her younger self and taking over for her, simultaneously playing out the pilot-navigator game, Wings Over Water, and her own life. It's a scene of great beauty and considerable power.

I wish that the rest of the play had that much resonance, particularly the story of Hazel and Muriel and their relationship. It can't be the fault of the chemistry between Belver and Cortese, who have acted together, at People's Light, more times than even they can probably remember. It doesn't help that we never see the younger version of Hazel, who remains off stage, on duty at the candy counter, in the flashback sequences; nor does it help that the adult Hazel is so resistant to Muriel's desperate desire to replay the sisters' past, and therefore spends most of her time on stage not relating to Muriel.

It may well be due to the play's ambivalent attitude toward the events of the past and their significance. On the one hand, the play is a traditional psychotherapeutic whodunnit, wherein the events of the past provide answers for the present: did Muriel lie to Norm about the popcorn, did Norm kiss Muriel only because Hazel asked him to, who saw whom doing what through the window of the projection booth, who betrayed whom, why did they each marry the way they did, etc., etc. On the other hand, the events of the past are, like the questions and answers of the Trivial Pursuit game that the adult Hazel plays with the greasy usher (O'Donnell again), ultimately unimportant compared to the task of getting on with one's life.

This latter attitude is probably a wiser, more mature, and more lifelike way to view the past. But it leaves a lot of unanswered questions for the play: Why does Muriel (and why do we) need to return again and again to her past, and why does doing so enable her (and, more mysteriously still, Hazel) to free herself from her hallucinations and move on with her life?

Terrence J. Nolen's direction works best when, like the play, it soars into romance. And David Gordon's marvelously seedy projection booth provides the perfect setting for both sides of the play. The incessant whir of the projectors doesn't let you escape from the reality of the moment; but if you close your eyes, you can let yourself imagine that you're listening to the thunder of propellers as you fly off to that tiny island in the Pacific.

When Tiny Island works best, it really flies, like Wings Over Water. When it explores the sisters' relationship, it feels more like the Bette Davis/ Miriam Hopkins movie, Old Acquaintance, or its Jacqueline Bisset/ Candice Bergen remake Rich and Famous - and you know what they say about remakes.

-Cary M. Mazer