Oatmeal and a Cigarette
nytheatre.com review by Robin Rothstein
August 18, 2008
Billy is an enormous three-year old with a full beard. Mommy is a man named Claire. Traditional roles are turned upside down and re-examined in Oatmeal and a Cigarette, a promising "Albee-lite" comedic drama by George Sapio that, like its emotionally stunted characters, still has some more growing to do.
Sapio sets the bar high at the top of the play by establishing an off-kilter world that lives somewhere between realism and the absurd, and questions immediately emerge. Why is a three-year-old boy being played by a 30-year-old man? Is Billy really three years old or does he just believe that he's three? Why did Claire allow Billy to get this way? Why is Claire a man? How does the rest of the world relate to Claire and his psychology? Is this all a game they're playing and if so, why? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions and the way these answers are revealed are often not as intriguing as the questions, and the play ultimately devolves into a conventional sequence of safe, expository scenes that tend to spoon-feed us explanations rather than confidently embrace ambiguity.
Disappointing results aside, Oatmeal and a Cigarette still holds your attention and the performers all do a fine job despite not always having enough to work with dramatically. Claire, portrayed with an eerie blend of cheer and chill by Karl Gregory, is a complex and damaged personality, a slightly warped June Cleaver who liltingly sings dark nursery rhymes to her son, while reminding him that the outside world that has begun to tantalize Billy is filled with vicious dogs and is unsafe for little boys. Madeline Maher is solid and well cast as Babysitter Jane, the amicable grad student who you expect to be the stable one here, but who ends up contributing her own manipulative ambitions and dysfunction to the mix. As Billy, Daniel J. Kiely is a marvel, bravely embodying this vulnerable man-boy who still makes poopies in his onesie. Through speech and body language he convinces himself, and us, that he is three years old despite his Falstaff-like appearance. Director Melissa Thompson does a nice job with regard to guiding the performances of this trio, who all work off each other nicely. The production's staging and lighting, however, are ultimately too straightforward. There were missed opportunities here for these areas to more imaginatively serve this skewed world.
Oatmeal and a Cigarette deals with provocative ideas about role models and the basic human need for love, security, and freedom, but just hasn't fully and confidently embraced its unconventional side yet. The press release indicates that the play was developed over a period of six months and then expanded through improvisation and collaboration. With further development and exploration, Oatmeal and a Cigarette could very well mature into the deliciously unique full-grown play it is meant to be.