nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 29, 2012
I've been hearing about James Harrison Monaco's solo show Reception for quite a while now (since back when it had a different title, Do You Like That Man?; the new title is better). This extremely talented young writer-performer has brought this piece to the soloNOVA Arts Festival, a splendid venue for it, and I urge you to check it out if you are interested in contemporary, cutting-edge, physical/spoken word theater.
The title refers to the play's subject, a wedding reception at a mansion on Long Island. The bride and groom, somewhat surprisingly, are not important in this tale, however; Monaco's focus is on the event itself—chaotic and raucous in all the expected ways—and how it resonates for three male members of one of the involved families (though I must confess that I don't know whether these fellows are on the bride's side or the groom's—not that it really matters).
Monaco's main character is Martin, a smart, shy ten-year-old whose father committed suicide; since that happened, his mother can't bear to see members of her late husband's family, and so she has sent her son off to this wedding in the care of his grandfather, 75-year-old Rick. At the very beginning of the play, Martin is in the hotel room with his grandfather after the reception, and with them is Martin's 28-year-old cousin, Gary. The play unfolds in Martin's memory, mostly, as he reviews the events at this wedding reception from the hotel room bathroom where, unable to sleep, he is spending some solitary time in the middle of the night.
Monaco's writing, as he guides us through the reception, is vivid and detailed and quite beautiful; it reminded me, much of the time, of the kind of unhurried, layered, visceral tale-spinning that Garrison Keillor does on Prairie Home Companion. At its most insightful, it reminds us that everybody has their own story to tell, and what seems desperate or pathetic or just plain mysterious to an outsider is honest and sincere and perfectly reasonable to the one who is living it. Both Martin and Rick grapple with the limitations of their respective ages—and with each other's—during the piece, perhaps coming to a better understanding of themselves as a result.
The way that Monaco performs the story, under the direction of Rachel Chavkin, is quite distinctive. He accompanies himself throughout like a human beatbox, supplying all manner of percussive sounds and movements (claps, snaps, foot stomps, and more) that create a score for the entire piece. The modulation of the volume and the pace of the movements contribute a rhythm that informs the storytelling in often interesting ways. My favorite part of the "score" was his rendition of an oft-told family legend, related by the eldest member Great Aunt Linda, which Monaco performs as a sort of a cappella song. It's a breathtaking, memorable moment.
Reception shows us a bright new talent who is equally adept at commanding a stage and writing for it; I will eagerly be watching for what James Harrison Monaco comes up with next.