nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
January 24, 2009
Writer-director Eric Bland's ambitious new play, The Protestants, is a lot like life: it's big, funny, sad, unwieldy, messy, frustrating, and poignant. It is also like life—and the best theatre—in that it takes one on a journey that makes the viewer engage head-on. The Protestants is an imaginative, heartfelt, and totally immersive experience that rewards the audience in many ways, including one that is also like life: it is great fun.
The play tells the story of four Virginia siblings reuniting for the wedding of their meth-addict mom. Scottie, the oldest, is visiting from New York, where he has lived for some time ("I moved to Kew Gardens to find myself"). The second oldest, Kareem—who is whimsically nicknamed Kareem Abdul Jabbarber of Seville for reasons too detailed to go into here—is mentally and physically disabled, and doesn't say much. Their younger brother, Dern, is severely A.D.D. and always wears a wrestler's mask to cover his disfigured face (the result of serious burns at an early age). Then there's Tippy, the only girl in the family, who gets teased about being transgender because she might as well be a boy. Rounding out the group are Scottie's neurotic girlfriend, Virginia (who gets a lot of attention from Dern), Kareem's live-in caretaker, Nurse Viacincelli (who is hopeless with men), and Tippy's best friend, Ruby (who has a crush on Tippy). The Protestants follows this dysfunctional group over the course of a year as they struggle with identity crises, existential despair, romantic heartache, and (of course) death.
Bland loads the audience's plate with a meaty helping of everything. There are echoes of William Faulkner, homages to Chekhov, and nods to Wes Anderson. Most evident, however, are the characters' sincere attempts to reach out and connect with each other, and to overcome their fear of connecting. Bland gives them all kinds of artifice to cover it up: witty intellectual quips, spontaneous dancing, Southern hospitality, etc. But their yearning keeps moving to the fore despite their attempts to hide it away. That struggle forms the bittersweet heart of The Protestants.
On a structural and technical level, Bland does some clever things to achieve the novelistic sweep of The Protestants and keep it on track. Foremost among these is his organization of the script as a Methodist church service. The play's 22 scenes are appropriately categorized in the program along those lines – i.e. "Call to Service," "Affirmation of Faith," "Sermon," etc. – and the action is steered accordingly. (Such titles could also serve as chapter headings, giving the audience a glimpse of what's to come.) Religious undercurrents run deep through the play, but Bland doesn't drown the audience with them. Scottie repeatedly talks about "the Good News" (a blatant New Testament reference), and the characters constantly struggle with their faith and beliefs while hoping for a sort of salvation. But they need not worry: Protestantism contends that all can be saved (hence, the Good News) with little time and investment. Scottie and his family can be good churchgoers by devoting only an hour a week to their respective salvations, a fine tradeoff for this colorful bunch of skeptics.
There are also hymns, of course, but not the kind you'd expect. Instead of traditional church music, the songs are spontaneous bursts of emotion that illustrate the characters' inner lives (think Pennies from Heaven, except sung a cappella). And in, perhaps, his most ingenious decision, Bland uses a life-size puppet to represent the sickly Kareem (brilliantly operated, I should add, by Siobhan Marie Doherty, who plays Nurse Viacincelli). It's a move that startlingly emphasizes how much of an "other" Kareem is to the rest of the family.
Not everything works, however. There are a couple of inconsistencies that prove distracting, like Dern's never-ending parade of hilarious t-shirts. He wears a new one in almost every scene while the rest of the characters never change costumes. And Amanda Woodward's lights sometimes dim to indicate a scene change while other times they do not. I assume these are directorial choices by Bland, but it's never made clear what purpose they serve. There is also a plot line introduced late in the play, involving a possible murder investigation, that feels so awkwardly tacked on that Bland, seemingly recognizing its improbable introduction, quickly drops it.
Otherwise, The Protestants is big, epic fun. Its two-and-a-half hour running time (which zips right by, incidentally) allows the audience to really get inside the mindsets of the characters and their world. There's a lot of beautifully wry humor that keeps the crowd laughing throughout, and a talented cast of actors that know how to deliver it. Scott Eckert and Victoria Tate make a convincingly conflicted couple as Scottie and Virginia. Maggie Marion captures the aching, misunderstood heart of Ruby perfectly, while Hollis Witherspoon is sassily disgruntled as Tippy. The aforementioned Doherty is simultaneously endearing and heartbreaking as the romantically yearning Nurse Viacincelli. And Gavin Starr Kendall all but steals the show with a riotous and moving performance as Dern.
For viewers who like meat and potatoes when they go to the theatre, The Protestants serves up plenty and then some. It's rare to see theatre this sprawling and accomplished, so go, be filled up, and enjoy. And spread the good news.