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STAR TRIBUNE Review: 'Uncle Philip's Coat' is worn, but he is not weary

Actor J.C. Cutler vividly sketches all the characters in this solo play about trauma and resilience.

NOVEMBER 2, 2022

J.C. Cutler plays several characters in Matty Selman’s “Uncle Philip’s Coat.’ SARAH WHITING

By Rohan Preston Star Tribune

Actor J.C. Cutler bounds onstage as if he's been shot out of a cannon.

"Anybody want to buy a coat?" he asks, pushing a worn covering forward. Like a man given a short time to live, he is animated by mortal urge as he launches into a series of stories about this item of clothing. He holds the audience rapt.

Cutler plays over a dozen characters, including the title one, in "Uncle Philip's Coat," Matty Selman's one-person show staging at Six Points Theatre in St. Paul. Cutler offers a master class in character studies, giving vivid embodiment to Philip, his brother Mickey, nephew Matty and all the other characters in this 65-minute one-act.

While the coat is an actual garment — a tattered article that once was grand — it also is a metaphor for an origin story. Philip wore it as a 10-year-old in Ukraine, where his family endured pogroms. He wore it more than a century ago as the family emigrated to New York, with the coat comically swallowing him up (Cutler covers his head) as he and his brother got off the boat at Ellis Island.

Unlike Mickey, who built a successful career as a jewelry repairman, and Matty, an unemployed actor who narrates the show, Philip never settles into a career. He is a luftmensch, Matty explains, a flimflam whose head is in the clouds while his feet are in the sewer.

Haunted by the antisemitic traumas he endured as a child, Philip is caught between fantastic dreaming and harsh awakening.

Director Craig Johnson stages "Coat" with muscularity and verve. That Cutler charges the stage with what could have been a mugger's surge speaks to his approach to the overall script. The directorial choice honors the scrappy, clawing spirit of a title character whose lifestyle is not on the up and up but who exhibits moxie as he tries to make a living.

It also puts Philip in the company of the ambulating salesmen one sometimes encounters in big-city barbershops, the ones who open their long coats with both hands to reveal insides decked out with store-like displays of watches, cigarettes and small bottles of drink.

Philip also sells watches and pens. But his claim to fame is that he's the brassiere king of the Coney Island boardwalk.

We know all of this, and more, because Cutler does such a marvelous job of giving life to Selman's battery of characters. He delivers these personages on a skimpy but metaphorically sufficient set designed by Robin McIntyre (the outdoor scenography includes a fragment of a boardwalk, a desk and some rubbish cans).

Cutler draws his distinct characters in language, cadence and mannerisms. His Philip is energetic but has a rotund gait. Matty also is vigorous but carries himself with contemporary ease. They are distinct, like visiting a family whose members have carried secrets for a while and have been waiting for an audience to share their difficult but resilient story.

'Uncle Philip's Coat' By: Matty Selman. Directed by Craig Johnson for Six Points Theater. Where: Highland Park Community Center Theater, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul. When: 8 p.m. Sat., 1 p.m. Sun., 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thu. Ends Nov. 13. Tickets: $25-$40. 651-647-4315. Protocol: Masks required.

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