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REVIEW: “What I Thought I Knew”

Josie DiVincenzo at the Jewish Rep

By ANTHONY CHASE


How spoiled must I be to take a dynamic solo performance by Josie DiVincenzo for granted?

How was she?


She was terrific. Duh! What did you expect?


DiVincenzo is known as a remarkable diseuse, thanks to her Artie Award winning performance in Iris Bahr’s Dai at the Jewish Rep back in 2013-2014. (Yes, it seems very recent. It’s merely vivid in memory).


In Dai, DiVincenzo portrayed ten patrons of a Tel Aviv cafe and the journalist who is interviewing them, one by one, in the moments before a suicide bomber strikes.


In contrast to the succession of separate lives recounted in Dai, in What I Thought I Knew we follow a single life story. This is a narrative monologue written by Alice Eve Cohen, based on her acclaimed memoir. Here, DiVincenzo plays 40 characters in Cohen’s story of a health crisis, turned life crisis.


At first, Cohen fears that she is ill. Doctors assure her that nothing is wrong. She is just aging. She’s going through menopause.


When symptoms persist, concerns become more dire. Maybe she has cancer.


After six months of frustration, she undergoes an emergency CAT-scan and finally receives a truly life-changing diagnosis. It’s not menopause.


“We did find something in you Mrs. Cohen…. We found a baby.”


This joyous news is complicated by the fact that she is 44 years old, has gone six months without prenatal care, and has lousy health insurance.


“It’s not customary to diagnose a pregnancy with a CAT-scan,” says the doctor. “Not recommended.”


The humor of the moment is complicated and belies the fact that we are embarking on a ride that will take us through numerous twists, all of them harrowing. We will also meet dozens of fascinating characters.


Di Vincenzo makes each person distinct and real, shifting between contrasting personae with all the alacrity and precision of Ruth Draper. We meet Cohen’s perfect boyfriend, who we fear will leave her when the going gets tough. There is her exuberant adoptive daughter. There is the disinterested and dismissive gynecologist; the ethereal grad student dying of cancer; the unfeeling insurance rep; the cold-hearted lawyer; the straight-talking, south-western, denim-wearing authority on Russell-Silver syndrome; the horrifyingly blunt birth coach; and even a talking floating embryo.


The thrill of solo performance lies not just in seeing an actor embody an array of distinct characters but in seeing her conjure the imaginary people to whom she is speaking. At every point, DiVincenzo makes us believe that we can see these people, what they look like, where they are standing, what they are wearing.


The performance, confident even on opening night, will only get stronger as the actor gains experience in front of the audience and learns to gauge their reactions. So often in monologue, the really big laughs come at moments of silence, when characters absorb the import or the absurdity of what they have just heard. When Cohen hears, despite a litany of worrying circumstances, that the insurance company does not consider hers to be a high-risk pregnancy. When her sister asks if she wants a baby shower, just as she is contemplating not keeping the baby, and she accepts. (What is the etiquette regarding the return of gifts in such a circumstance?)


DiVincenzo has been guided in her creation of Cohen’s characters by director Saul Elkin, who brings touches of reality and personality to each scene. This is augmented by superior sound design by Tom Makar, and lighting by Brian Cavanagh. Set designer David Dwyer provides an admirably restrained and simple set – just an aluminum chair in front of a sky. Ann Emo has done the similarly simple costume design, affording the actor the mobility and neutrality needed to invent 40 characters.

Since we can ungratefully take DiVincenzo’s remarkable virtuosity as a given, attention now turns to Cohen’s script. Her memoir was a hit, celebrated by everyone from Elle magazine to Oprah. In writing a memoir, the author initially decided that the complex layers of the plot precluded stage presentation. She was later convinced otherwise and adapted the story for the stage, performing it herself, most notably at The Kitchen Theatre in Ithaca and at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City.


Was her original judgment correct?


As is so often the case, what Cohen thought she knew was mistaken. What I Thought I Knew makes a compelling evening of theater.


The story is very simple. This is a play about a woman having a baby. The complications along the way are uncommonly numerous, but basically, that’s it.


The fact that this story is timeless leaves the door open for infinite points of affinity between the storyteller and her audience. We are all connected to numerous stories of birth.


The evil magic of Cohen’s script is her talent for convincing us, at every turn, that disaster is about to strike. She artfully establishes this in the opening moments of the play when her heroine -- joyfully free from an unhappy marriage, blissfully content in her life with an adopted daughter, involved with a new and wonderful man, -- makes the fatal error of declaring that she has never been happier. This, she reminds us, is an invitation to catastrophe according to Jewish superstition, and must be warded off by spitting three times through your first and second finger. That tactic proves to provide little protection from the wrath of God and the tyranny of fate.


The narrative builds in layers, and as in Homer, each time our heroine escapes a crisis, she encounters a new one. As we approach each narrative plateau, Cohen takes an inventory of what she knows. Then she moves on.


The playwright conditions us to experience dread even when our heroine receives good news. Audience identification with Cohen is apparent in the gasps and sighs that greet each new impending calamity. This reaction, no doubt, is conditioned further by horror stories every expectant parent has heard.


As we travel this journey, despite its explorations of suicide, divorce, living with disability, and post-partum depression, when all is done, this play is a comedy. The story may be imbued with the fears that plague all mortal beings, but every scene is also buoyed by hope and humor. That is the lesson of What I Thought I Knew. Cohen’s own perseverance offers more protection than any superstitious ritual.


Performances continue at the Jewish, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 3:30 & 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. at the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre of the Jewish Community Center, 2640 North Forest Road, Getzville (650-7626). www.jewishrepertorytheatre.com