Lenny & Lou
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 29, 2006
A very good—though definitely not the only—reason to see Lenny & Lou is the chance to see David Mogentale in a dress. Fans of 29th Street Rep, the company Mogentale runs with co-artistic director Tim Corcoran, will know that this is just about the least likely costume for the burly, currently bearded, testosterone-laden actor who has played such diverse roles in the past as Killer Joe, Jack Henry Abbott, and Bobby Supreme. Especially this particular dress, a black slinky number, low cut with spaghetti straps.
But wear it he does, with panache if not exactly high style, as Lenny Feinstein, a wannabe rock star with issues, lots of issues, many of them centered around his disturbingly dysfunctional relationship with his mother Fran. The dress is hers, and he's wearing it to feel closer to her because she has just been strangled by Lenny's brother Lou and Lenny is dealing with his grief, admittedly in a weird way. Fran and Lenny were close, maybe too close: incest is suggested, as is a kind of screwy Oedipal/mother fixation that put me in mind of Norman Bates and his old lady.
By contrast, Lou, an accountant, is the normal one; in the context of the story, his strangling of Fran almost feels defensible: Lenny & Lou is that kind of play. It is, indeed, sitcom turned on its ear, a comical and quick-witted look at a family of fruitcakes: the East End plays of George F. Walker offer a frame of reference, as does The Simpsons, except the Feinsteins are a lot edgier and potentially more dangerous.
The play begins in Lou's dining room, in the middle of the night. Fran has called Lenny and asked him to bring her some bananas. He went to her apartment but couldn't get in, because Fran—not only hard of hearing but more than a little senile—couldn't figure out who he was. Lenny got mad and told her he was Adolph Eichmann, come to kill her. This did not get him into her apartment, and indeed has resulted in Lenny's arrival at Lou's, pulling his brother out of bed because he's worried that Fran may have dropped dead from fright. Lenny wants Lou to check on Fran—that's the sort of relationship the two brothers have—and Lou, after a lot of protestation, decides to look in on their mother.
Which leads us to the strangling incident: Lou is resentful of having to take care of both his mother, who never seemed to care much for him, and his good-for-nothing brother, and so the old lady's demented carryings-on this morning manage to push him over the edge. Meanwhile, Lenny returns to his home and his hot-tempered wife, Julie, who is also pretty fed up with Lenny's uselessness; in a hilarious sequence, she demands sex from him before they both leave for work. Back at Fran's, Lou is now acting like a character in a farce, piling lie upon lie as he tries to cover up what he's done to his mother when Fran's caregiver Sabrina turns up at the apartment.
Playwright Ian Cohen savvily ramps up the comedy in the play's second act, getting Lenny into his mom's dress for one thing, and also bringing Julie into Fran's apartment to push toward a scary-hilarious climax in which the two brothers go at one another like refugees from a Sam Shepard play.
Lenny & Lou is an actors' paradise, offering five choice parts that, here, are played to the hilt by an accomplished cast. Mogentale dominates through sheer force of personality (plus Lenny is the most colorful of a highly eccentric lot); he's as brutal and fearless as his fans expect, and hilarious in a number of deadpan comic moments that they might not see coming. Todd Wall more than holds his own opposite Mogentale as the more serious, less flamboyant Lou, making the character utterly believable at his most desperate and, when warranted, his most surprisingly explosive. Suzanne Toren is terrific as loony old Fran, and Carolyn Michelle Smith makes the most of her single scene as the Jamaican nurse Sabrina, trying vainly to let her agency know that she's been given the day off and being thwarted by technology old and new in the process. Heidi James completes the ensemble as the simmering powder keg Julie; earthy, brash, and supremely confident, she threatens to steal the show every time she shows up.
Under Sturgis Warner's well-paced direction, the show is splendidly mounted, with Ryan Scott's unit set particularly well-crafted and Isabel Rubio's costume design 100% on target. I'm not sure that Lenny & Lou is for everyone, but if bad language and frank talk about sex, disease, and death don't bother you then you might want to consider letting Cohen's play turn your views about those subjects cockeyed, at least for a couple of hours.