The Kitchen Table Plays

There are two plays at war here in Erin Breznitsky’s The Kitchen Table Plays. You might think there would be five wars, given that the show is five vignettes, all taking place around a kitchen table. But the various scenes are all on the same page thematically, it’s the framing device and extra stuff that feels like a completely different show.

Let’s start with the good, because there’s a lot of it. All of the five vignettes are variations on themes of family, love, loss, pain and regret. They are straightforward, well written and soundly structured. All kinds of relationships are explored, among them: a recently divorced man coming out of the closet, a grandmother trying to connect to her sick granddaughter, a repairman trying to do his job at a house in mourning, a dinner party that starts in celebration and quickly gets strange.  Each of these scenes, with one exception, is sharply written and never overstays their welcome. They make their mark and then they move on.

The four actors (Josh Fielden David Gautschy, Melody Gray and Stephanie Moise) inhabit the various roles by removing or adding a single piece of clothing. These actors are of various ages, but as directed by Tamara Winters they get equal shots at nice human moments throughout the five scenes. My favorite scenes were the opening and closing, as there were more chances for subtle behavior that made me smile or nod. While all the actors acquit themselves well, my favorite performances were in the first and fifth plays as well: David Gautschy’s recent divorce instantly stole my heart as he stares in a mirror practicing for his first same-sex dinner date ever, while Melody Gray’s long-married, long suffering wife earned my respect with how she reacts once she realizes she’s been betrayed. The one lapse in the writing is the repairman scene, which despite some good acting, never quite crosses the line from archetype to truth that the other scenes do (it didn’t help that the repairman, named Ted, has a nametag that says Mike, for reasons that are explained without actually being explained.)

There are many shows like The Kitchen Table Plays, where the action is compromised of semi-related vignettes (Neil Simon made a fortune writing several of them.) The tone here is more Yasmina Reza dramaedy filtered through David Ives’s All In The Timing, which is not a bad thing. What makes this show different is the extra business, the tasks assigned to the actors in-between the scene or during the scenes. For each scene, if an actor is not in character, rather than sitting offstage they watch or narrate the scene. No one leaves the stage. Most of the scenes do not require narration, but they narrate anyway. And in between each scene, they look at the kitchen table, and one another, and they speak sentence fragments about…

I have no idea what they’re about. "It is not just a kitchen table.” “A kitchen table is a monument.” “A kitchen table is a bloodline.” “Don't you know anything?" “Do you remember Thanksgiving?” And on, and on. On top of this self-conscious abstraction, the show starts with the four actors staring at the kitchen table, before they do a weird dance/movement thing that results in them dismantling the table. Then they stare at the table in horror, and put it back together. Then the play(s) begins. And right when we’re getting to the good stuff, the abstract movements and lines begin again, a little slice of Brecht to distract us from the otherwise real drama. (To be fair, things are already abstracted as all of the props are mimed, but that didn’t bother me. It did bother the person sitting next to me.) At the end, I won’t spoil what happens to the kitchen table, but I will say I didn’t get it.

Perhaps Brezintsky (or director Winters) thought they needed this extra layer to tie the scenes together. To me, it was unnecessary and distracting. The actors outside of their scenes have no characters, so any anger or happiness expressed by them is largely in a vacuum. And since we already know another scene is coming thanks to the program, one has to resist the temptation to cry out “get on with it!” The scenes are solid, and we’re ready for more. Between the title and the fact that the set is only a table and chairs, we understand the underlying idea. We don’t need the extra window dressing. In fact, we don’t even need the first and last word of the title. “Kitchen Table” works all on its own.

If you can get past the framing device and dance moves, there’s four out of five very solid scenes here that show Breznitsky knows how to feel our pain, and express it in a bittersweet way. I saw a lot of people I’ve known, or know now, or maybe I used to in the different scenes. This feels like a solid stepping stone on the way to a future play that will have some good stuff in it, for both actors and audience members.

One final note: the usher asked us to sit as close to the aisle as possible for sight line issues, and she was right. Despite being three seats off the aisle, there were key moments I couldn’t see people’s faces. I don’t know if this was a space limitation or if blocking wasn’t corrected once they moved into the space (this is fringeNYC), but it was frustrating. So heed the usher. Sit as close to the aisle as possible.