nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
June 22, 2009
A werewolf, a pirate, a clown, a skeleton, and a fairy princess sit at a Dunkin Donuts at the opening of Kristin Newbom's Telethon. It's Halloween, of course, but from the outset it's clear that something more involved than a night of trick-or-treat has just happened. The werewolf and the pirate are dumping piles of money out of their plastic pumpkins; the fairy princess is a guy in an electric wheelchair; the clown isn't allowed to have coffee because it causes seizures; and the skeleton (also in a wheelchair) is just a little bit off in all her emotional coloration.
It soon becomes apparent that Gary (the fairy), Shelly (the skeleton), and Jerry (the clown) are residents at a home for the disabled, and Ann (pirate) and Scott (werewolf) are two of their caretakers, out with their charges after some sort of fundraising event. In addition to their physical disabilities, Jerry lies compulsively and Shelly fixates on objects and conversational topics; Gary, the most severely physically disabled, can barely speak at all without the help of a computer voice simulator (like scientist Stephen Hawking uses). Ann and Scott, while not physically disabled, have troubles of their own: Ann is a single parent estranged from her father and sister and buried in debt; Scott is lonely, divorced, and prone to panic attacks.
And as the basic setup of the scene repeats itself with only a change of holiday—Christmas brings Nativity costumes and a shift from cider to eggnog on the projected Dunkin Donuts menu; Easter brings bunny suits—and tiny, occasionally touched-on changes in circumstance, it also becomes apparent that these are people with no one to turn to but one another. It may not be the social circle or the family that any of them would have imagined for themselves, but it's what they have and what they make the best of.
Not a lot happens here; these aren't characters with dramatic story arcs or shocking plot twists within the time frame of the play. (Or, rather, the things that happen aren't what we see on stage.) The action is in the small moments between characters, often portrayed obliquely, the little—often terribly sad—revelations and epiphanies that they share, both hilarious (Jerry's heartfelt recitation of his "poem" about "emotions" that's actually an Aerosmith song) and horrifying (Shelly making Pixie Stix dust out of someone's remains). Many moments could easily tip over into mockery if acted or directed at all broadly, but the entire cast (especially Birgit Huppuch as Shelly, always sincere and passionate and completely un-self-conscious) and director Ken Rus Schmoll keep the emotional connections vivid and grounded throughout.
Although the play is often extremely funny, Newbom's writing has wells of sadness and loneliness, not very far under the surface, bubbling up here and there—Scott's moments of completely losing his grip; genuine medical emergencies that Ann and Scott aren't really equipped to cope with; Gary's sudden outburst of uncontrollable weeping—but also spots of unexpected grace, like a poem that Gary works away at on his voice-simulator computer throughout the entire Christmas scene.
And the play ends with a nostalgic coda, a voiceover against a home movie of a small-town Fourth of July—closing out the year and heading back toward Halloween—that tries to encapsulate in a monologue how people meet, connect, lose one another, and move on with nothing but memories. It's a beautiful piece of writing that may overplay its hand in laying out the themes of the play.
One of my favorite short stories, by Lorrie Moore, describes a character this way: "She hadn't been given the proper tools to make a real life with, she decided, that was it. She'd been given a can of gravy and a hairbrush and told, 'There you go.'" That line reminds me of this play: full of people wanting so badly to connect, and yet scarcely equipped to survive in the world, the caretakers as much as—or in different ways from—the taken-care-of.