Thursday, January 24, 2013

Theater Roundup: The Other Place (Broadway), Bethany, Water by the Spoonful (Off-Broadway)

The Other Place
Written by Sharr White; directed by Joe Mantello
Performances through March 3, 2013
Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Written by Laura Marks; directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Performances through February 17, 2013
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage II, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

Water by the Spoonful
Written by Quiara Alegria Hudes; directed by Davis McCallum
Performances through February 10, 2013
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

Metcalf in The Other Place (photo: Joan Marcus)
The Other Place, Sharr White’s drama about a woman whose perfectly ordered professional life is destroyed by a creeping psychological disorder, doesn’t do much more than scratch the surface of its heroine’s dementia: but within its proficient dramatics, it makes room for a stirring central performance. As Juliana Smithton—star neurologist (get the irony?) whose presentation at a doctors’ conference at the play’s start triggers her decline—Laurie Metcalf gives a ferociously funny, fiercely committed performance.

Juliana is married to the caring if not always understanding Ian (a likeable Daniel Stern), a doctor who finds a colleague to help her through her uncontrollable mania tied to their teenage daughter’s disappearance some years before. Although White cleverly sets up his central conceit—is Juliana insane or telling the truth about the daughter’s whereabouts?—he never delves deep into its emotional ramifications.

Director Joe Mantello guides things sensitively by giving attention and care to make a 70-minute play seem substantial: although the ending—the identity of a girl in a yellow bikini whom Juliana described at the opening is revealed—is posturing nonsense, Mantello and Metcalf do their best to illuminate an insipid tear-jerking ploy.

Segal and Ferrera in Bethany (photo: Carol Rosegg)
When the housing bubble burst at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, we didn’t hear much about those left homeless because they foreclosed on their mortgages. In her play Bethany, Laura Marks gives faces to forgotten people, showing what they went through in an era of personal and economic crises.

But while Marks get little things right, the bigger picture is muddled, like news reports while the economy was tanking: peripheral questions answered, larger issues remain unresolved. Bright, optimistic Crystal (America Ferrera), who sells cars at a Saturn dealership, enters what appears to be a vacant house only to be confronted by Gary (Tobias Segal), a paranoid squatter who becomes an unlikely confidante by allowing her to stay (happily, electricity and running water are working—for now).

Crystal uses the house to fool social worker Toni when she visits to ensure that Crystal has a steady income and fixed abode before she gets her young daughter Bethany back: homeless Crystal and Bethany were found living in her car, so the girl was given to a foster family for safekeeping. At work, she engages in flirty banter with Charlie, a middle-aged motivational speaker contemplating buying a new set of wheels; her job is commission only, so of course she wants to make the sale to have a steady cash flow. But Charlie has more on his mind, and after he takes her to dinner and drives her home, things get complicated.

Marks presents a disillusioned, delusional country in the midst of a terrible crisis, and these minor characters in a national tragedy are worst off: Saturn itself goes under after the play ends (indeed, Crystal’s annoying supervisor tells her so), costing thousands of jobs. But there’s lazy writing as Marks stacks her dramatic deck: Gary is a clich├ęd grassroots paranoid whose rants quickly become tiresome, and Crystal is forced into corners from which neither she nor the author can plausibly escape.

Would Crystal fall for Charlie’s transparent “buying” scheme or stoop to using a 2-by-4 on Gary because of her desperation? How easy it is for a young woman to forge a lease realistic enough to trick Social Services? Would Charlie’s obviously intelligent wife really believe Crystal’s implausible story about their relationship and pay her a tidy sum to leave town? And how is a pivotal body hidden from the authorities?

Such gaping plot and characterization holes fatally mar an otherwise earnest, well-intentioned study of those squeezed out amid Wall Street bailouts. Gaye Taylor Upchurch smoothly directs, and America Ferrera’s nicely etched Crystal—beaming smile always at the ready despite overwhelming difficulties—provides some necessary meat on the gristly bones of Bethany.

Guevara and Riesco in Water by the Spoonful (photo: Richard Termine)
Excess gristle mars Water by the Spoonful, Quiara Alegria Hudes’s Pulitzer Prize winning second play in a trilogy about a Puerto Rican-American soldier returning home to his Philadelphia neighborhood from Iraq. Half the play studies how death effects soldier Elliot in a foreign land and at home, along with chronicling his estrangement from a complicated family relationship; unfortunately, there’s the other half, a curiously irksome visualization of internet chat rooms—I kid you not—that, even though eventually merging with the main plot, is never fully integrated into the dramatic fabric. Instead, it tears it to near-shreds.

Because Hudes insistently opens every single one of her characters’ wounds, the chat room bunch gets as much play as Elliot’s far more captivating family. An unconscionably long time is taken up by Orangutan and Chutes and Ladders—just one pair of the internet chatters—as they try out a friendship away from the computer; not only do they belong in another play but they hinder the Elliott and his family’s development.

There’s also an ending which, in its sentimental leap towards spirituality, tries too hard to be “Importance” personified. In director Davis McCallum’s observamt staging, the cast—led by Armando Riesco’s aggressive but tender Elliot and Zabryna Guevara’s appealing Yaz, his level-headed cousin—provides the cohesion needed to keep the Water hurtling forward despite its author’s unnecessary detours.

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