nytheatre.com review by Edward Elefterion
August 16, 2013
FringeNYC’s blurb for BRENDA, “Wallace is 25 and feeling a little stuck in life. Oh, he's also gradually transforming into a 55-year-old woman... Brenda is an unhinged, melancholy road-trip play about American loneliness and the fragile things that make us who we are.” It’s not about that. It’s not about Wallace (turns out he’s not so important and vanishes mid-play). It’s not about him turning into his 55-year-old mother (she appears for the second half of the play). It’s not a road-trip (though there are a couple of driving scenes). It’s not about loneliness or identity…no matter how much playwright Cory Finley wants it to be. It’s mostly about that gigantic, unwieldy, refrigerator-sized box.
I found myself wincing for the safety of the actors at one point as they teamed up to heave-ho the obviously heavy beast in near-dark ghost light between scenes, opening and closing its hinges to reveal various painted backdrops: the front of a car, a headstone, a wall complete with painted shelf supporting painted bottles, a bed (which broke a bit when the actors wrestled on top of it) – this time my wince was collective and my entire row held one big breath. Some scenes were shorter than the time it took to move the thing into place. I chalked it up to inexperience, but thinking back on my experience of the play, that’s what I remember most about it. The deadly set-piece and that the play had no aim. The only two characters that had any real dramatic relationship lacked development and their possible journey was never explored or really even recognized, and Wallace, the one who starts the play, the one who we follow through the first three scenes – is not one of them.
It’s Mike, Wallace’s beer-chugging, shake-weight jerking lummox of a roommate, and Jen, Wallace’s recovering-alcoholic co-worker/object of desire. Mike and Jen provide the most interesting relationship of the play. Mike wants to get strangled – in a sexual asphyxiation sort of way, and he meets Jen via Craigslist. They have one mysteriously intriguing scene talking together over the phone, a scene that gets at the sense of loneliness and fragility the blurb mentions, but the play leaves the odd pair unexplored. Instead, we have Brenda and Cliff, Wallace’s parents, resurrected from the dead but lacking any desire. They’re alive and seem glad to be back but…I don’t think they even know what they want or might be interested in doing. The play ends up being about Jen and a life-altering decision she makes on the spur of the moment. And Jen gets the last line, even though it feels so out-of-left-field that I’m still scratching my head over the whole thing.
Director Ashley Rodbro must be able to see the obstacle that the set creates, yet she did not choose the most obvious solution: cut the darn thing. It’s theatre. Do we really need to see a painting of a tombstone? Or a car? Get rid of it and move on to the other huge obstacle that really needs your attention. The script. With a cast as game as this one – they take on real-life, monstrous physical challenges with real nerve – I bet they’d flourish if they had something dramatic to really push up against.