nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
July 23, 2008
[This is a review of Group Blue]:
Sometimes, just sometimes, it is fun to wrap your arms around taboo subjects and take them slightly beyond where we generally tread. Throwing risk to the wind, John Cooper's Turtle Shell Productions, now in its fifth year, does precisely that with Summer Shorties, an evening of five short plays. Combining smart scripts, tight direction, and fine acting, I left feeling as I might after eating hors d'oeuvres for an hour and a half at a large Jewish wedding—sated.
Topics turn from generic to acerbic to absurd. Starting with The Funeral by Lauren Robert, in which two daughters meet in a funeral home. Beth is late, having flown to New York from California, and Jonnie is furious, because most of the responsibility of their mother Miriam's struggle with lung cancer fell to her and now she's dead. Dead? Mother's dead? No, it is their step-mother, also named Miriam, who died. Beth knows because she was there, at Beth Israel Hospital. There's more, told with humor and a nugget of truth. Director Peter Sander makes sure both are armed and quick on the draw. Kendall Zwillman as Jonnie and the playwright as Beth duel with finesse and know the precise moment when sisterly bonding works best.
In Fran Handman's As Long as We Keep Talking, it is Sarah's birthday. Sarah and her daughter Jeannie wait—as usual—for another daughter, Helen, to join them, uncertain as to whether she will even show up. Helen, or Henya as she now calls herself, is married to an Orthodox Jew and follows all the rituals expected of her. She wears a headscarf, a long skirt, and is pregnant yet again. None of them can move past the cultural barriers, or perhaps Orthodoxy becomes an excuse for not facing other conflicts. In either case, reminders of past slights become bigger than familial bonds. David Wells's direction adds urgency, particularly with the impenetrable Henya played by Elise Rovinsky. Anna Savant shows the secular Jew's impatience with ritual she neither cares about or wants to understand, and Susan Wallack delivers the poignant plea of a mother.
In playwright Scott Tobin's Black Doll, nicely directed by David Wells, Joan and Edward, a black couple, arrive with a gift for Emily, Rachel and Don's new baby. Joan and Rachel are co-workers. The gift is a black Raggedy Ann doll, and Emily loves it. The conflict that ensues indicates that this play may not be as much about racism, as it is about knowledge and where it comes from. Learning from our children starts early. Russell Jordan gives a particularly nuanced performance as Edward, who balances egregious insult with the tact of a guest who doesn't know his host. Daniela Libertini does a fine turn as baby Emily. Heather Silvio, Daniel Wolfe, and Kiyoko Hairston fill out the fine cast as Rachel, Don, and Joan, respectively.
In Andrew Bliss's two-character play Dedication, a father speaks to his son about the war in Iraq. Arthur French plays a convincing broken father kneeling at the grave of his fallen son, wondering at his senseless death. Booker Washington is no less compelling when he appears in crisp military decoration as the proud serviceman, defending the orders that sent him to war as well as his belief that his patriotism was not in vain. The dialog hits with an open palm. Again, David Wells displays his directorial adeptness as the subtly of Bliss's script comes into focus and the two characters shift positions.
The last play, Mr. Company, is by Marc Castle. Although it veers in a different direction than the others, it is no less entertaining and brings the evening to a close on a light note. It opens with Lorna, a sales clerk, feather dusting Mr. Company, a robotic companion sold only at Sharper Gadgets. Dee Dee stumbles into the store more for the air conditioning than with any intention to buy, and discovers Mr. Company is more than a simple companion with the ability to speak in six different accents. He is an interactive toy, who is fully equipped. His capabilities unfold slowly, with enough twists and turns to clinch an unexpected sale. John Squire as Mr. Company treads beautifully between man and robot. Traci Hovel builds Dee Dee's consumer interest at just the right pace; and Robin Madel delivers as Lorna. It is nicely directed by Peter Sander.
The attractive, all-purpose set designed by Peter Estella gives unity to the plays as does the simple choreography presenting all the actors at the start. Jorge Arroyo designed careful lighting, Carol Spawn Desmond created fitting costumes, and Yin Y. Chan delivers on sound.