East Village Chronicles, Volume 3
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 22, 2006
For their third "volume" of East Village Chronicles, the folks at Metropolitan Playhouse have taken a look at six "notable and notorious" residents of the eponymous neighborhood. Spanning at least a couple of centuries and covering figures as diverse as Madonna and Peter Stuyvesant, to name just two, the evening is a simmering stew of styles and stories.
It begins with a bang, in the form of Stephen O'Rourke's delightful comedy Peter Stuyvesant, which puts the legendary peg-legged Dutch autocrat who once ruled New Amsterdam with an iron fist into a surprising situation. Telling you more would spoil it, so suffice to say that O'Rourke manages his premise deftly in this near-perfect ten-minute play; he even supplies a socko finish for it. It's stylishly directed by Anne Beaumont and played by J.M. McDonough as the curmudgeonly old Dutchman and Ben Grimes as a fellow named Walter. I've heard great things about O'Rourke's work in the past but never had the pleasure of seeing one until now; I'll eagerly look forward to others in the future.
The tone of the rest of the evening is much more serious. Even the two other humorous pieces, Anthony P. Pennino's Lucky and Trav S.D.'s Father's Name Was Daddy, are presented more for message than for laughs: the former, in which Alberto Bonilla plays Lucky Luciano and Ben Grimes plays Meyer Lansky (both are enormously likable and the portraits strive to be light-hearted), explores the idea that these founding fathers of Organized Crime were just buying into the American Dream; while the latter, about Abbie Hoffman receiving an unexpected visit from his estranged Dad, has been staged by Pennino to mine the drama of the meeting rather than the rather abundant potential comedy.
Michael Bettencourt's Bintel Briv tells an interesting tale about two East Villagers who are barely known nowadays, Abe Cahan (who founded the Jewish newspaper, The Forward), and Lola Ridge, a poet who became a minor celebrity in the '20s. This play postulates a meeting between the two, and further hypothesizes that the collision of these lively and somewhat simpatico intellects might have led to the creation of their signature works, The Rise of David Lavinksy (his) and The Ghetto (hers). Directed by Beaumont, this features sympathetic portrayals by John Blaylock and Wendy Allegaert.
The most successful of the evening's dramatic pieces are also the most adventurous. Renée Flemings's Flight is a stylish homage to musician Charlie Parker, using a loose jazz-inspired structure to play out scenes from the end of a tortured life, all taking place in Parker's imagination as he lies on a hospital bed. Ian Eaton plays Parker and he does a sweet job conjuring the saxophonist, especially when called upon to do some a capella renditions of what Parker might be hearing when he plays. Allison Lane as a girlfriend and Robert Kya-Hill as his father also offer impressive performances, under Sidney Fortner's direction.
Alberto Bonilla's Nonnie represents an even greater departure from Metropolitan's usual style, and for that reason it may be my favorite piece of the evening. It tells the story of Madonna, framing a familiar but nevertheless wrenching tale of ambition and rejection within a Broadway chorus line audition. Bonilla, who also directed, gives the piece a fluid style that feels cinematic and sometimes even dreamlike as it conjures the fall and then rise of the Material Girl. Shelleen Kostabi gives a gutsy performance in the title role, and Allison Lane, Ben Grimes, and Ian Eaton are excellent as the literal and metaphorical chorus. The choreography (uncredited) is really fine, and nicely executed by the cast.
I didn't know that Madonna had once lived on the very same block that the Metropolitan Playhouse is located on; that's just one of the tidbits you'll discover in this intriguing collection that celebrates the diversity and pluck of a neighborhood that's gone through more transitions than even Madonna has. The evening is probably a bit longer than it should be (maybe one of the plays could have been saved for a future "volume"?) and the production values reflect the budgetary and time restrictions inherent in this kind of project. But the ideas are fascinating and resonant, and certainly fulfill the company's mission to help us understand who we are by looking deeply at our shared past.