What I Meant Was…
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 21, 2011
What I Meant Was... is billed, delightfully and entirely accurately, as "the odd, short-ish plays of Vinnie Marano." Fans of this fine, earnest playwright—who has been a mainstay of Manhattan Theatre Source and the New York International Fringe Festival for the last decade or so—will not be surprised at the variety, wit, and wisdom they'll encounter in this eclectic quintet of dramas and comedies. And those who don't know Marano's oeuvre are in for a treat, as they get a first look at the talents and preoccupations of this Bronx native and NYC indie theater fixture.
There are five plays in this evening of one-acts. Two of them are brand new. Words Fail, which kicks the show off, is a thoughtful and surprising exploration of what it means and what it takes to make art nowadays—to really persevere, I mean, and do what's necessary to see your vision through. Marano certainly knows first-hand how tough it can be to make indie theater successfully in the Big Apple, but there's nothing whiny or even particularly specific in this piece, which is a brief, simple,and often oblique conversation between two friends who are presently at odds. He wants her to help promote his new artwork, and she, for a variety of complicated reasons, is reluctant to do so. There are mighty ideas at play here, that will resonant with anyone who is trying to make some kind of a difference in a world that mostly feels indifferent to them.
Artistic License, which opens Act II, is the other premiere in What I Meant Was... It is set in the early 1950s, and introduces us to the female members of a badly broken family. The mother, Penelope, is stoically "handling" her husband's flagrant infidelity by hosting a dinner party for his new girlfriend. Their daughter, Jessica, is understandably furious. And the new girlfriend, Carlyle, is cool but perhaps not as comfortable as she pretends to be. Observing and offering occasional commentary is the family's longtime maid, Athena. Marano creates an interesting atmosphere of tension among a group of smart, articulate women rendered temporarily inarticulate.
The one older piece in What I Meant Was... is also its funniest, Wrestle Talk, first performed in the '90s. It takes place on a sports cable network wrestling talk show, hosted by a tough and upwardly mobile personality named Betsy Burke. Her guests today are Billy Ray Bob and the Mad Czech, who are about to lock horns in a grudge match in Madison Square Garden. The twist in Wrestle Talk is revealed early on and I actually guessed what it was before that, but it's still very enjoyable and humorous. Marano tweaks hypocrisy on a whole lot of levels here.
The remaining two items on the bill are from 2011, though previously performed at MTS. Both are about fatherhood, and both are warm, rich, and insightful. My Baby takes place in the bar of a swanky restaurant, where one man waits for his girlfriend and another waits for his daughter. They mix as neatly as water and oil, but of course discover some things in common. Wisemen, the final play of the evening, is also my favorite. It's set in a hospital waiting room. Pew is a nervous first-time dad, anxiously awaiting word about his wife and newborn. With him are two disparate gentlemen, whose exact relationships to Pew are uncertain (indeed, it's not really clear why they're there at all). Genteel, calm Winsor and trash-talking, rough-hewn Easy offer contrary perspectives on birth, life, and other topics. At first their give-and-take felt like a gimmick, but Marano takes this piece to an unexpected and uplifting place by its end. Wisemen sums up the ever-hopeful, life-embracing philosophy that runs through all of Marano's work.
The playwright directed My Baby and Wisemen himself; DeLisa M. White helmed Wrestle Talk and Artistic License and Dev Bondarin staged Words Fail. The production is expert. An ensemble of 12 actors does fine work throughout: James Michael Armstrong, Angel M. Castillo, Tod Engle, Elizabeth Fountain, Annalisa Loeffler, Ryan McCurdy, Ellie Pyle, James Rieser, Side 2 Side, Trevor Swann, Quinn Warren, and Laura Williams. Oftentimes an evening of short plays can feel like a chore to sit through, but What I Meant Was... is a smart, funny, cohesive evening that plumbs themes dear to the heart of its creator, and I enjoyed it immensely.