Thicker Than Water 2008
nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
February 3, 2008
"Never a dull moment" and "smooth as silk" characterize this year's Thicker Than Water, the annual collection of one-act plays by Youngblood, Ensemble Studio Theatre's company of emerging professional playwrights under 30. You will get a good supply of belly laughs, plus poignant moments and sharp insights into human relationships.
If there is a theme that runs through all seven offerings, it is "connection", or the mammoth effort it takes for connections to be forged. The night starts with the gentle touch of Co-Op The Musical (book by Courtney Brooke Lauria, music and lyrics by Matt Schatz), directed with a breezy air by Jordan Young. It's a simple story of the first contact between two shy and lonely souls: Bean the shop girl at a quaint Oregon produce market, and Ethan the boy who shops there every day. They are so sweetly awkward you will root for them all the way. It also sports one of the best songs I've heard in a long while, "Don't Date Your Double" (because the two of you would "finish each other's life sentences!").
La Féte (The Holiday) approaches "connection" in a more realistic tone. Written by Daria Polatin, it portrays Lindsay, a teenage girl on a Christmas trip to France with her mother and new stepfather. The dynamics and holiday setting tend toward the familiar, but director R.J. Tolan sets the perfect pace for Lucy DeVito's smart depiction of an angry daughter who still grieves for her dead father.
The "connection" emerges as a strange area code on the joint cell phone bill of a pair of ex-lovers in 508, by Amy Herzog. Bridget gets Leo to come over to the apartment they once shared, to pick up his last box of stuff. Leo has since married, and brings up the subject of a phone bill that shows that Bridget has been calling the same man since a month before their breakup. All deliberate smiles and painful jabs, the action under Marlo Hunter's sophisticated direction finds the right touches of humor and bitterness. Julie Fitzpatrick as Bridget (also Bean in Co-Op The Musical) shows her considerable range as a woman struggling with both her longing and intransigent self-preservation.
For Candy: a Dead Letter Written, by Michael Sendrow, is an intriguing piece about a missing "connection." It starts out full of mystery as Nick the high school student skips class, only to find his Dad has also come home early, with a letter that has traveled long and far to reach him. But the big surprise—the content of the letter—does not supply enough emotional payoff in the end, and the many long pauses cut down the tension as well.
My favorite work of the night is Red Blue and Purple, by Justin Deabler, a piece full of biting political and social commentary. Dylan has done very well since he left his little town for the Big Apple. Now he visits home and catches up with his best friend Nina, who is still on certain medication, and now heavily involved with the church. The niceties quickly drown in the enormous gap between them, with every revelation of the lives they have each led since parting. Deabler's writing turns the dangerously stereotypical into something fresh and bold. Nina is played by Kelli Lynn Harrison, an explosion of talent, skills and spirit. I would go to any show she is in.
The mood turns with It'll Soon Be Here, a musical by Delaney Britt Brewer and Eric Kuehnemann that takes us to a private party for the Bill Clinton inaugural. We meet the voraciously positive one-hit folk singer Deb, her embarrassed and apathetic daughter Rainbow, and Deb's fan, an easygoing young man named Eric. Straightforward and full of cheer, this is a crowd-pleaser that paints "connection" as a door you can open as soon as you open your heart.
The most ambitious and darkest offering of the night—and more than twice as long as any other—Both, by Emily Chadick Weiss, revolves around a group of friends who are desperate to connect, often through physical intimacy or the appearance of a relationship. Its cynicism and graphic nature will turn some people off, but I admire its verve and ferocity. The actors plunge into various combinations of sexual relationships, showing admirable commitment to their craft. I only wish the script were deeper and more nuanced, and gave the five characters more distinct narratives. We get the emptiness and desperation they suffer, but come away sadly empty.
Despite minor flaws, Thicker Than Water is affectionate and full of life. Due to the length and other constraints, it is not so much about plot as about moments, but it is filled with keepers.