Bella and the Pool Boy
nytheatre.com review by Ethan Angelica
August 13, 2011
It's always wonderful to find a good old-fashioned play in FringeNYC, particularly one that takes an interesting spin on the traditional “family play.” Such is the case with Bella and the Pool Boy, produced by Apothecary Theatre Company. Despite its saucy-sounding title, the play is the story of a strained New Jersey family, centered around that universally important, but often-overlooked, family member: the dog. And, while the concept is great and the performances spectacular, the play needs a stronger structure to truly tell its simple, yet compelling story.
Bella revolves around the experience of anxiety-ridden Will (Dennis Flanagan; also the playwright), who has returned home to bury his childhood dog Bella. There, he is confronted by the stresses of his old life: a childhood friend who has moved into his old bedroom, a mother who treats him like a high school student, an old crush and her wrestler boyfriend, a hippie sister who is creating a “circle of light” to memorialize the dog, and an overbearing New York City girlfriend who wants him changed. All of this seems to be the makings of a madcap comedy and, while there is absolutely silly fun peppered throughout, many of the scenes offer some truly touching moments as Will starts to find value in the life he fled in New Jersey.
Where this show takes a wrong turn is that Flanagan has not found a focus for his play. Every scene is satisfying on its own, but, as a whole, the play does not fully cohere. The tale vacillates between a story about a dysfunctional family unit and a story about a dog, without really marrying them. While many extremely interesting relationships are established, most are unresolved by the end, and the few that are have not had enough stage time to make the result truly satisfying.
Thankfully, director Shawn Renfro has put together an all-star cast that is an absolute joy to watch. Curran Connor gives a truly dynamic performance as Calvin, balancing his many laugh lines with a surprising and wonderfully heartfelt monologue. As the overbearing mother Cindy, Gwynneth Bensen kept me chuckling all the way through, and Flanagan carries the show with specific and infectious energy. Dina Ann Comolli is spot-on as the hippy sister, and Carrie Watt is perfect as Bella. Technical director and sound designer Lou Albruzzese has created one of the most effective sets I have ever seen in a festival (the sliding door is outstanding!), and Leilani Rose's costumes are simple, but very evocative.
Bella and the Pool Boy is on the way to becoming a wonderful, and highly produceable, play. The play is at once funny and sweet, and tackles universally recognizable issues that are affecting to most any New York transplant. However, at this stage, it lacks the focus to make it a truly gratifying story.