nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 11, 2009
Not to overstate how well-written MilkMilkLemonade is, but it feels like something Edward Albee might have written for a pair of 10-year-old protagonists. Mind you, Joshua Conkel, author of this darkly comic new play, is not Albee; not yet: but he has a unique and remarkable voice and his concerns aren't all that different from what was being investigated in plays like The American Dream and The Sandbox 50 years ago, namely, the festering, melancholy rot that's eating away at the American spirit.
MilkMilkLemonade takes place on a farm near a place called Mall Town, USA, somewhere in the middle of our country—"now-ish," according to the program. This farm is owned by Nanna, a hard-working and hard-luck middle-aged lady who is dying of lung cancer and wheels around a portable oxygen unit, from which she wheezingly inhales between puffs on an omnipresent cigarette. (Subtlety is not the name of the game here.) Nanna raises chickens on her farm, and today the birds are due to go into the "machine," where they will be (allegedly) mercifully slaughtered and processed into sellable chicken parts.
The only other person on the farm is Emory, her 10-year-old grandson. Emory is, as the playwright himself puts it, a "sissy boy": he likes playing with a fashion doll that he's named for singer Charlene ("I've Never Been to Me") and on at least one occasion compares himself to Annie (of Broadway musical fame). He wants to leave the farm and go to the City where he instinctively knows he will find other boys like himself. He dreams of winning a TV reality show.
Nanna doesn't really get Emory, and at the beginning of the play she tries to instill some of her values in her wayward grandson: he needs to stop playing with dolls and stop acting like a girl. Maybe he should play with that little boy next door, Elliot, who likes to set fires on his parent's lawn.
Elliot turns out to be as big a misfit as Emory, only lacking the self-knowledge and the confidence that keep Emory afloat. The two are a sad pair of youngsters, victims of the stasis they find themselves in and the provincial attitudes of the grown-ups who are rearing them. With them, Conkel makes important observations about the state of our union.
I almost forgot to mention that Emory's only other friend is a talking chicken named Linda.
Conkel's play is bitterly funny and broadly satiric, abetted in both of these achievements by director Isaac Butler's superbly accomplished production of it. Highly theatricalized design elements (set by Jason Simms, costumes by Sydney Maresca, lighting by Sabrina Braswell, and sound by Butler) create a suitably surreal environment for this crazy story, where a lady in a black leotard translates Linda's clucking into English from the side of the stage and characters are prone to burst into song or dance numbers at pretty much any time. It's an antic, absurdist ambience that keeps us enough removed from the story so that its emotional center isn't unbearably sad and also helps focus us on the troubling way we Americans deal with issues like sexuality, identity, and self-actualization.
The cast is exquisite. Andy Phelan is immensely likeable as Emory, and he and Jess Barbagallo (the young actress who plays Elliot) are very convincing as little boys. Jennifer Harder, brilliantly costumed by Maresca, is splendid as the wise Linda. Nicole Beckwith underplays her various tasks as the (for want of a better term) emcee or interlocutor of the piece, the Lady in a Leotard. And Michael Cyril Creighton gives us a fine comic creation in Nanna, imbuing a character that could simply be a walking sight gag with guts and heart and deep, deep disappointment.
Conkel manages to cover a great deal of ground within this one-act play. He uses pop culture references like a kind of poetic shorthand; it's fascinating that people as different from one another as, say, 10-year-old Emory and, say, me, can parse and process the same random song and movie and TV nostalgia. Here's the common ground of American culture these days. Can this trivia that we share help us understand each other just a little better?