"84, Charing Cross Road" was the address of an antiquarian bookstore in London where Helene Hanff, a brusque New Yorker, bought the rare titles that she lived on. Hanff collected her 20-year correspondence with Frank Doel, the reticent manager of the store, into a lovely book that James Roose Evans adapted.
Theatre in the Round's production, under the strong direction of Lynn Musgrave, captures the charm of the story, if not its underlying passion.
As Helene, Maggie Bearmon Pistner hits it out of the park. She captures the character's snarky exterior, as well as her warm heart and quirky passion for books. She asks for a volume of love poetry, "but not Keats or Shelley. I want a poet who can write about love without slobbering."
Her performance is enough to excite a passion for reading. (I want to use the book as a reading list, that's how energized it made me about the obscure titles.)
The true joy of the play is the intimacy that develops between the correspondents, and that is missing in this production. Dann Peterson plays Frank with a bit too much British reserve, too much stiff upper lip. He never relaxes enough to reveal the depth and intimacy of the relationship that develops. As a result, the second act loses steam and interest understandably flags.
The play introduces several other employees of the bookstore. They mime a great deal of extraneous business and it proves distracting. That is a fault of the script, not the production, and Musgrave eliminates much of it. But there is still too much. She could have gone further.
Michael Hoover's set adds to the distraction. It's beautiful, capturing Helene's cramped modern apartment and the Dickensian feel of the bookstore. But he filled the arena so full that it was hard for the actors not to run into each other.
Evans is an ordained Anglican priest as well as a theater professional, and his love of humanity is evident in how he chose to edit the letters. This is not a deep play, but it never apologizes for its warmth and sentimentality. It has the kind of sweetly sad ending that this kind of story requires, made all the more touching because it's true.
William Randall Beard writes regularly about theater.