nytheatre.com review by Ross Peabody
January 21, 2006
The Talking Band’s newest music-theatre work, Delicious Rivers, may just be the most charming play happening in NYC right now. Understandably, this is not the reaction that one would necessarily expect stepping out of the Club space at La MaMa, but try as I might, it is the most appropriate adjective to describe the experience of the show itself: completely and utterly charming. This is also not the reaction that would be expected from the description of the show itself. Delicious Rivers takes place (almost) entirely in and around a New York City post office and explores the intertwining lives, histories, dramas, and dreams of three postal workers, three neighborhood post office regulars, and a strange little man named Donald Arnold who probably works at the post office and probably is a mathematical genius.
There’s a lot going on in the piece. Delicious Rivers is a play predominately about patterns: the patterns in the daily lives of these characters; the patterns of their interactions with others, their yearnings and fears; the patterns of nature and the universe; and the patterns of patterns themselves. A large part of the show's appeal comes in the delicacy and care, not to mention childlike joy, that playwright Ellen Maddow imbues in the script and, especially, the underpinnings of the script. Maddow worked extensively with mathematician Marjorie Senechal to create this piece and it manages to wonderfully explore the areas where daily life and math intersect, the playwright sharing with us her pleasure at exploring the mathematical ideas abundant in the world around her, including their association with the most beautiful and the most banal of daily tasks (going to the post office, for example). Possibilities are endless in this world.
Maddow uses Penrose tiles (a geometrical illustration of patterns and infinity in which two shapes can be joined together periodically or aperiodically in such a way that the possible growth of the picture will have no end) to illustrate both her play's structure and the ideas at hand in the play. Happily enough, she manages to take somewhat lofty ideas and translate them onto stage in a way that, if we weren’t fairly regularly reminded that the play was about math, is seamless and really quite lovely. There are actions in the play that repeat, moments that recur, even phrases (“the same, but not”) that remind the audience that everything around them has a pattern that will come become clear if only it is sought out in the right ways.
This sensibility also embeds itself firmly in the very lush lives of each character, especially as they are portrayed by the uniformly excellent cast. Whether it’s Joe Hertz (Cortez Nance Jr.) weathering the death of his father while simultaneously courting co-worker Lily (Mary Schultz); Sy Turner (Jay Smith) discovering that he may have a long lost half-brother, who may work at his local post office, but also may not have a brother at all; or Lorraine Stone (Kim Gambino) coming home to discover that it is just “different” there now, we see each character navigate their own inner patterns as they discover and explore the surprising and interwoven patterns that exist between them. But it’s not as complicated as all that. Despite the talk of double images existing at once and the projected flashes of the numerical pattern “11235813,” the humor and pathos of the play and its characters allow the charm of the work to shine.
It is no small feat for a playwright to successfully create a world where such complex ideas can live simply, and of course Maddow's collaborators are equally responsible for the success of this piece. Paul Zimet’s direction is tone-perfect here, managing to physicalize the patterns of the script without ever actually repeating itself. He’s also perfectly integrated the ever-present three-man band into the action of the play, as “extras” in the action, set dressing, prop, narrator; whatever is necessary for their continuous presence to make consistent sense. Set designer Nic Ularu, deserves special mention for one of the most useful and effective unit sets that has been onstage in some time. Utilizing three double hinged doors and a wall of cabinets, Ularu’s set implies a seemingly endless amount of combinations for scenes, a strength that is especially fitting for this play.