In the Schoolyard
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
Paulanne Simmons and Margaret Hetherman's new musical, In the Schoolyard, follows several old high school friends from Brooklyn who reunite in the old neighborhood once a year for a weekend of socializing, reminiscing, and schoolyard basketball. It's a great idea for a show that, unfortunately, falls flat here. Plagued by inconsistency on all fronts, In the Schoolyard undoes its creators at every turn.
May 5, 2007
Eddie, a middle-aged high school principal in New Jersey, organizes the reunion every year. Among the usual attendees are Larry, a white collar California businessman; Jerry, a Long Island attorney; Dave, a wayward entrepreneur looking to make a quick and easy buck; and Manny, owner of a national Tex-Mex restaurant chain. They all grew up together, and rarely miss an opportunity to hang together no matter how geographically far away they may be from each other. Some of these men are workaholics, others have lost numerous jobs, while others have married and divorced, but their collective friendship has remained constant throughout the years.
On a purely structural level, Simmons's book lets In the Schoolyard down in a crucial way: there's no conflict. Act I takes its time (perhaps a little too much) introducing all the characters. Then, in Act II, the show jumps straight into a slow, gradual resolution, bypassing any and all complications. There's some potential discomfort regarding a risky investment deal Dave wants to get Larry in on, and a life-threatening disease for one of the men late in the show, but they both feel almost like afterthoughts. Simmons never positions In the Schoolyard for any kind of circumstance that might jeopardize the men's reunion or their friendships (or anything else).
Even if she did, we might not necessarily see it. The two places the guys talk most about—the basketball court and the local bar where they hang out afterwards—are the two locations where we never get to see them. In the Schoolyard shows us plenty of who they are individually, but we see very little of who they are together. Without this dynamic, the show feels imbalanced.
Simmons and Hetherman's score has some nice moments, but on the whole sounds too somber and minor-key for this story. The exuberance that the characters keep aiming for is absent from the songs. There are also some dubious choices made concerning which parts of the story get musicalized. "Our Guys," a trio for the tried-and-true wives, and "Rice and Beans," in which one of the guys' mothers rhapsodizes about her signature dish, feel like filler. Simmons and Hetherman fare better in other places, most notably with Manny's introduction, "Best Latin Lover, Dartmouth '71," but, for the most part, I had a hard time understanding why In the Schoolyard is a musical and not a straight play.
The production itself is shaky, and feels severely under-rehearsed. The actors look uncertain much of the time, and there's a mental and emotional disconnect that happens whenever most of them sing. Director Simmons doesn't unify any of the show's various elements, and the result is a production that comes off looking like a first run-through at the halfway point in the rehearsal schedule. Sadly, under such conditions, almost none of the actors comes off looking good. Only James Martinelli makes a positive impression as Jerry. Imagine Tom Sizemore as a song-and-dance man, and you'll understand how disarmingly charming Martinelli is.
As I said at the beginning, there's a good show lurking in here somewhere, but this isn't it.