Thursday, June 16, 2016

Off-Broadway Reviews—“Indian Summer,” “Radiant Vermin”

Indian Summer
Written by Gregory S. Moss; directed by Carolyn Cantor
Performances through June 26, 2016
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Radiant Vermin
Written by Philip Ridley; directed by David Mercatali
Performances through July 3, 2016
Brits Off Broadway, 59 East 59th Street, NY

Owen Campbell and Elise Kibler in Indian Summer (photo: Joan Marcus)

Of course Indian Summer is set on a beach: that it’s a beach on Rhode Island, the smallest of our 50 states, is Gregory S. Moss’s conceit. Our teenage hero is Daniel, one of the “summer people” staying with his widowed grandfather George for the summer—or until his erstwhile mother returns from wherever she went after dropping him off. He is befriended by cute 17-year-old local girl Izzy—after initially insulting her Sicilian heritage; Izzy’s 27-year-old boyfriend Jeremy is not only the personification of “musclehead” but also a man desperate to hold onto his girl by any means necessary.

Despite his lunkheadedness, Jeremy notices that Daniel and Izzy are becoming quite friendly and compatible, despite their initial antagonism. If Moss can’t quite make his almost love triangle plausible, he has a knack for gentle observation and the occasional wistful moment, like the lovely scene that opens Act II: Daniel and Izzy, after spending the entire night (platonically) on the beach, sit in the sand and discuss what they would say if they ran into each other here ten years from now.

The next scene, of Jeremy pathetically enlisting Daniel to help him plan to propose to Izzy—which Daniel goes along with because he’s absolutely sure Izzy will turn Jeremy down flat—also adeptly blends equal parts humor, heartbreak and sentiment. But the elephant in the room is George our erstwhile narrator, who late in the play has Izzy wear his dead wife’s dress and talk to him as if she were his wife. The resulting scene, unlike the two preceding it, isn’t memorably melancholic or sweet, but instead downright creepy.

Still, Moss writes nicely turned conversational dialogue and Carolyn Cantor directs straightforwardly on Dane Laffrey’s sandbox of a set in which the actors frolic for 90 minutes. Jonathan Hadary might be a bit too obvious as George, but Joe Tippett brings feeling to Jeremy’s ripped abs and Owen Campbell makes a properly pimply and confused Daniel.

But Elise Kibler carries the play on her shoulders as Izzy, a tough yet tender, raw but romantic young heroine. Playing the only character interacting with the others, Kibler gives a nuanced and persuasive performance that elevates Indian Summer past its sentimental leanings to achieve an overarching melancholy like watching the last sunset on the beach at the end of summer.

Scarlett Alice Johnson and Sean Michael Verey in Radiant Vermin (photo: Carol Rosegg)

With Radiant Vermin, Philip Ridley has made an fitfully amusing black comedy that acidly looks at the new normal: middle-class couple Ollie and Jill—in their attempt at upward mobility in a society that no longer easily allows it—discovers a sure-fire way to become and remain affluent: (gulp) murder.

Ridley has gleeful fun with how his couple goes about its diabolical plan, which takes on greater urgency when Jill gets pregnant. But there’s not much underneath the surface, and introducing a mysterious real estate agent who may have something to do with their doings is something intriguing that’s been left unexplored.

Despite the shrillness—one ridiculously overwrought sequence has the couple acting out a dinner party from hell that seems to last forever, and with few chuckles—the actors do their very best to keep it afloat. Sean Michael Verey, an amusingly hangdog Ollie, has thick glasses framing a rubbery face of sheer ingenuity, while Scarlett Alice Johnson makes an absolutely winning Jill: she more than complements her costar by bringing needed heart to the proceedings, of which director David Mercatali should have made better use.

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