Friday, December 5, 2014

Off-Broadway Reviews—"Grand Concourse," “A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations),” "A Christmas Memory"

Grand Concourse
Written by Heidi Schreck; directed by Kip Fagan
Performances through November 30, 2014
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)
Written by Sam Shepard; directed by Nancy Meckler
Performances through January 4, 2015
Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

A Christmas Memory
Book by Duane Poole; music by Larry Grossman; lyrics by Carol Hall
Directed by Charlotte Moore
Performances through January 4, 2015
Irish Repertory Theatre, 103 East 15th Street, New York, NY

Mendes, Moreno and Tyler Bernstine in Grand Concourse (photo: Joan Marcus)
How unfortunate that Heidi Schreck's Grand Concourse closed after a relatively short run, for this modest but insightful character study deserved an extension. But that seems to be the way of things: when engrossing works like this or Adam Bock's A Small Fire a few seasons back deserve a second life—or even a longer first life—in New York, they rarely get their just due.

It's too bad, for Schreck's play, set in a Bronx soup kitchen and revolving around four characters—Shelley, a nun who runs the place; Emma, a confused 19-year-old and a new volunteer; Oscar, the kitchen's handsome handyman; and Frog, one of the elderly men who frequent the place—is a low-key, eloquent look at how disparate people come together, and explores whether they are selfless or selfish: most likely a combination of the two.

That's not to say that Grand Concourse is perfect—there's a finale that feels tacked on, especially coming after a penultimate scene which seemed to say all that needed to be said about these characters, and especially about the volatile relationship between Shelley and Emma—but there's an economical precision to Schreck's mostly believable dialogue. Kip Fagan resourcefully directs a magisterial quartet—Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Shelley), Bobby Moreno (Oscar), Lee Wilkof (Frog) and Ismenia Mendes (Emma), fast becoming an essential performer on New York stages, and who is well on her way to being one of our best actresses—that pours added compassion and humor into Schreck's already excellent script.

Judith Roddy and Stephen Rea in A Particle of Dread (photo: Matthew Murphy)
The plays of Sam Shepard, from Curse of the Starving Class to The Late Henry Moss, often deal with Oedipal issues of absent or abusive father figures. His latest, A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), declares its intentions in its subtitle, but the rather trite updates to and borrowings (to say it as nicely as possible) from the enduring Greek myth suggest that Sheaprd doesn't have too much to say whatever continuing relevance Oedipus might have today.

Instead, a playwright who has made virtues of structural disjointedness and violent outbursts among his often crudely drawn characters here goes so far over the edge that it's difficult to take anything that occurs onstage seriously (or even comedically). Taking place in what looks like the remains of an asylum, A Particle of Dread—a typically resonant Shepard title—radiates out from the central murder to encompass dual characters like Oedipus/Otto, Jocasta/Jocelyn and Antigone/Annalee, along with a ludicrous pair of forensic detectives and two onstage musicians.

Sheaprd's dialogue is portentous and ponderous in equal measure, while Nancy Meckler's staging—except for a vividly realized hanging (for which Michael Chybowski's striking lighting design deserves a lion's share of the credit)—can't harness the essential shallowness in Shepard's concept, and so resorts to putting Frank Conway's evocative set awash in blood both literal and figurative. Of a game cast, only Stephen Rea makes an impression as Oedipus and Otto, but there are times when he seems as confused as the rest of us. 

Robinson, Spagnuolo and Ripley in A Christmas Memory (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Based on Truman Capote's classic short story, A Christmas Memory is a perfectly pleasant holiday musical set in Alabama in 1933 and 20 years later, where we meet adult Buddy, returning as a successful writer to the old—and now vacant, except for the loyal black servant, Anna—family home. Memory is a series of flashbacks to young Buddy's last Christmas with the trio of eccentric cousins who are raising him, notably Sook, with whom he bonds by making annual Christmas fruitcakes, one of which is even sent to the new President, FDR. The adult Buddy looks on, narrates and even enters scenes with his younger self.

The two-hour show is a sometimes sleepy but sweet concoction that will warm the hearts of those in the mood for sentimental holiday fare, agily directed by Charlotte Moore and containing several polished songs by composer Larry Grossman and lyricist Carol Hall. Ashley Robinson and Silvano Spagnuolo memorably play Buddy as a grown-up and a young kid, and Alice Ripley is heartbreaking as cousin Sook, even if she tends to sing to the back row as if she's in a large Broadway theater, compromising her naturally beautiful voice. She should tone it down as effectively as the rest of this small-scale but engaging production does. 

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