nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 8, 2009
Red-haired Thomas, the new play by Robert Lyons at the Ohio Theatre, is about a guy having a mid-life crisis. Cliff is a professional gambler—an unusual profession these days, but one not so different from a career in the arts; think about it—trying to cope with a wife who is much more successful and well-put-together than he is, a smart 11-year-old daughter who is growing up (and away) much too quickly, and a losing streak that has lasted far too long. He's the kind of guy who, when his daughter Abby tells him she needs quarters for bus money, decides to organize a '60s-style boycott to protest the city's shabby treatment of kids who live too close to their schools to get subsidized public transportation.
Importantly, Cliff is also the kind of guy who won't ever actually follow through on the boycott: he'll just talk about it, and seethe.
On the day when Abby rides away on the bus (using quarters she got for herself) and fails to complete the little father-daughter morning ritual that they've enacted for years, Cliff reaches a breaking point. Then he finds a $20 bill on which the president's hair has been colored bright red and he decides he's found a good omen. He brings it to his favorite newsstand, a place he visits everyday to get his morning paper that's run by Ifthikar, an immigrant from an obscure former Soviet republic. Cliff accidentally pays with the magical twenty...and then things really start to fall apart for him.
Ifthikar, you see, has real problems: his wife and daughter are still in his native country, where Muslim rebels are seizing girls' schools and warfare and terrorism are rampant. Cliff's American dreams don't feel significant to Ifthikar, which is why he eventually takes Cliff hostage.
Thomas Jefferson is involved in all of this as well, though I must admit that I was never entirely clear as to why he as opposed to some other Founding Father or Notable American serves as the piece's narrator/deus-ex-machina.
Red-haired Thomas is a flight of fancy; Cliff's fever dream through a panoply of current American anxieties. Lyons has written a play that's funny—zany, even—but it's not well-served, I think, by this production. Director Oliver Butler is taking the thing too seriously, staging the piece as naturalistically as it will allow (on a puzzling set defined by piles of newspapers) at a pace too slow to represent the anarchic disarray taking over Cliff's psyche. Peter Sprague's Cliff comes across as too mild to convey the stormy dreamscape he's traversing in this play. Danny Beiruti (Ifthikar), Alan Benditt (Thomas Jefferson), and Danielle Skraastad (Marissa, Cliff's wife) fare better, but acting honors clearly go to Nicole Raphael for convincing us roundly that she's a precocious but ordinary and loving 11-year-old as Abby.
Butler's staging uses just about every inch of the Ohio Theatre, by the way, almost as if in loving tribute to its untimely and imminent demise (we don't know exactly how much longer it will remain an indie venue, but its days are sadly numbered). Like virtually every other tenant of this beloved space that I've ever viewed, there is plenty in Red-haired Thomas to enjoy and be surprised by. I'd love to see the script have more life.