nytheatre.com review by Spencer Chandler
August 15, 2004
Onion Girl, a new play written by Joye H. Cook-Levy and directed by Scott R.C. Levy, tells the story of Billy, a young woman whose Mother has died and left her the family business: the Tastee Inn & Out in Sioux City, Iowa, a relic of the original fast-food days. Regulars can drive up and place their "usual" orders with a person they know, and “onion chips with an extra container of dip” is a house specialty.
However, something’s rotten in the state of Iowa: Billy’s mother haunts her incessantly, offering play-by-play commentary from her armchair high above the stage. Billy’s heart is torn between preserving the family tradition of loose-meat sandwiches and her dream of a career in photography. When a bank appraiser shows up and offers to help turn things around for the ailing business, things get complicated.
The setup of Onion Girl is pleasing: the kitchen of the Tastee Inn & Out, a more quiet Middle America in the early 80’s, and the intriguing question of intersecting loyalties to family, business, and personal dreams. But some components invite question, chief among them the choice to cast a man as Billy’s mother. The play, save for the one supernatural aspect of a hovering ghost, is traditional kitchen-sink (or in this case, “deep-fryer”) realism, augmented by neatly handled and well-timed projections that snap on and off to represent various kitchen gadgets. It’s never really campy or subversive, so Nathan Halverson’s rendition of Mama—sharp, comic, and reminiscent of Nathan Lane in The Birdcage—strikes a puzzling note.
More integrated a character is Gregg, played by Paul Rhyand. A Heavy Metal short-order cook who works alongside Billy, Gregg manages to plunge several orders into the deep fryer while peppering his goings and comings with the alan of a would-be lover. Ryhand scores with a sweet combination of effortless sex appeal and slobbery, evoking the manner of a levelheaded Jack Black. Joshua P. Gartland, as the bank appraiser, plays the tightly-wound business geek with skill. He also delivers one of Cook-Levy’s best monologues with the fullness of real memory: a lovingly nostalgic tribute to old-time kitchen machinery, and a great example of strong writing and an actor’s deep commitment.
Sheila Carrasco, as Billy, inhabits her character’s struggle with convincing sweetness and indecision. She also handles the challenge of running the kitchen, speaking to off-stage customers, real people, and the ghost of her mother deftly. But Mama’s verbal volleys, while earning several laughs, leave her perpetually interrupted, and deprive Billy’s character of sustained ownership of the play’s heart.
The director has smoothly molded the cast, and their comfort with each other bespeaks a strong, supportive hand. The set design by Marla Shaffer makes the most of FringeNYC limitations. I was sufficiently intrigued by the world of Onion Girl to crave more from the three “real” characters, and the affair left me with a discernable longing for an order of onion chips, and the era, memories, and questions they evoke.