SHOWING : April 18, 2008 - May 18, 2008
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Miranda and Nick want a baby. Simple, right? But, are they ready for the hormones, headstands, and hamsters it will take to get their wish? The award-winning author of Living Out brings us an open, honest, hilarious and surprisingly tender look at fertility in the 21st century.
$15-$20; discounts for groups, students, & senior citizens.
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Thursday, May 1, 2008 ||
So, what was I expecting when I walked into Lisa Loomer’s “Expecting Isabel,” currently in production at 7 Stages from the Synchronicity Performance Group?|
What I wasn’t expecting was a dramaturgically weak offering from a playwright whose works are “taught in university drama programs.”
What I wasn’t expecting was a thin performance by Stacey Melich in a leading role.
What I wasn’t expecting was a clunky and distracting lighting scheme only a few steps above “performing under work lights.”
What I wasn’t expecting was a profound sense of been-there seen-that déjà vu (though I should have).
Yet, all this is what I saw.
To be fair, I also saw some nice ensemble work, some clever and lively directing from Rachel May, and a stand-out performance by Daniel Triandiflou, who has the marvelous ability to show us what he’s thinking and feeling, even when his words are saying something else.
Miranda and Nick are New Yorkers trying to have a baby. They go through a sequence of painful and comically humiliating fertility exercises until they realize their only hope is adoption. This opens up a whole new set of painful and comically humiliating adoption hopes and disappointments, testing their marriage and their happiness.
If this sounds a bit like the 1977 Public Theatre offering “Ashes,” which won Obies for playwright David Rudkin and stars Brian Murray and Roberta Maxwell, well, I said I should have expected the déjà vu. After all, “Ashes” was about a pair of New Yorkers who try to have a baby, go through a sequence of painful and comically humiliating fertility exercises until they realize their only hope is adoption, then go through a whole new set of painful and comically humiliating adoption hopes and disappointments, testing their marriage and their happiness.
I’ve been told it’s unfair to compare a current play with an older one that contemporary audiences probably never heard of (and, to be sure, I know of no production of “Ashes” since its New York run), but I don’t really agree. It’s no more unfair than comparing different productions of oft-performed plays. In this case, the two plays are so alike (almost bordering on plagiarism), even down to the structure of the two main characters directly addressing the audience, and all supporting characters played by an ensemble in multiple characterizations), a comparison is not only inevitable, but necessary.
To begin with the dramaturgy, I found Nick and Miranda to be extremely contrived characters – each has a defining characteristic (Miranda pessimistic, Nick optimistic) that creates manufactured conflict, but little else. Their background feels contrived and unreal (unemployed artist and Greeting Card writer who own a New York Apartment and can go $50,000 in debt). Their actions feel forced on them by the playwright, not natural extensions of the thin characters they’ve been given. Most of the humor in the first half is based on broad stereotyping (overbearing Italian family, alcoholic mother) that it feels a little unclean, and wears out its welcome faster than it should. Even worse, we’re TOLD that Miranda’s Mother’s alcoholism is a contributing factor to her chronic depression, but what we’re SHOWN is a comic drunk in the Dean Martin vein, who is treated with bemused distance by Miranda. It’s a shallow character in the service of cheap laughs.
In addition, the playwright indulges in every cliché from the Book of Childbearing, bringing them out and displaying them as if they were something new and original. And worse, the rift in Nick and Miranda’s marriage is brought up, then dropped completely, as if it were inconsequential, or worse, solved by the addition of a baby. A “musical number” of mothers and prams is tossed in that lasts far too long with far too little effect. And the play finally ends with a supposedly moving resolution, which is undercut by a last line that, again, goes for a cheap laugh rather than for credibility. When compared to the “Ashes” conclusion (“We’re going to have to build our marriage on something other than the ashes of our desire for children”), it’s sit-com, movie-of-the-week material.
What saves the play from being completely dismissable is Daniel Triandiflou’s performance as Nick. Yes, he starts out with all the Italian New Yorker stereotypes firmly in place, but he transcends them with his optimistic, likeable reactions, with his believable angers and disappointments, and with the skill with which he hides his dashed hopes from Miranda without hiding them from us. He’s able to generate most of the laughs that are based on character rather than clichés. Unfortunately, Stacey Melich as Miranda is surprisingly thin (surprising considering how good she’s been in previous shows) – she has the lion’s share of storytelling, but doesn’t really get inside of Miranda. Again, she tells us a lot about herself, but shows very little. She rarely goes beyond the everything-will-out-for-the-worst main characteristic, even to the point of showing little surprise when good things happen. I never believed her transition from her “Who needs a child?” starting point to the obsessive “Anything for a Child” actions of the main plot.
The ensemble helps by making their multiple characterizations funny and believable, even when they’re one-dimensional. Suehyla El-Attar (as expected) is funny in everything she does, Maria Sager has a marvelously moving moment as a Puerto Rican mother with far too kids, Tiffany Morgan makes Miranda’s lush of a mother amusing and credible (despite being obviously younger than Ms. Melich), and Allen Hagler, David Howard, and Lauren Vandemark all show great range and energy in about dozen different roles.
On a technical level, the set is abstract enough to make the many scenes flow smoothly and quickly, and Director Rachel May shows her usual flair of staging the scenes with pace and wit. However, the lighting is distracting and clunky. Using only two colors (white front and amber side), the scheme bumps from “scene” to “aside to the audience” pictures clumsily and unnecessarily, drawing too much attention to itself and to the fact that the timing of the cues is too often “off.” A leaf gobo is tossed in for some park scenes, but it is left white, and only succeeds in putting distracting shadows on the actors’ faces.
So, what did I expect? I expected an update of the “Ashes” story – fertility options are a lot more varied now than they were in 1977. I expected a well-crafted script from an honored and studied playwright. I expected Synchronicity’s usual high level of professionalism and craft. I expected a deep and wide-ranging performance from Stacey Melich.
What I got was a shallow, badly constructed “issue play” that based its laughs on humiliation and stereotype, that broke no new ground that wasn’t already covered thirty years ago. What I got was a production that distracted with bad technical design and execution, and that ultimately disappointed. And yet, it was a play that can’t be dismissed, that provides some moments of genuine pleasure and reflection, and that puts the spotlight on an actor I hope we’ll see more of in the future. Who could have expected that?
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)
5/1/2008 Addendum: Considering the exceptional word-of-mouth and Critical Reception this show has received, I should consider whether my expectations were “tainted” by my knowledge of “Ashes.” This is a strong possibility – at the time, “Ashes” had received enough notice that I was motivated to drive the four-plus hours to New York to see it, and, in fact, have a tattered one-sheet of the show’s Paul Davis buried in my attic detritus. Indeed, the play affected me so strongly, I tried (in vain) for years to get anyone to mount a production. It has fallen into obscurity, so I cannot say I blame Ms. Loomer and Synchronicity for not knowing it. (As an exercise, I looked up all the Obie Winners since 1970, and of 71 titles listed, I’ve only seen or read 25, and know nothing at all of most of the rest.)
All this being said, I can fully acknowledge the wonderful performances of all (if we grant that Ms. Melich merely had an “off” night when I saw it), I can fully acknowledge the skillful direction of Ms. May, and I can even appreciate the many laughs (even if they made me feel somewhat guilty when they were based on obvious stereotypes and caricatures).
Still, I can’t help the influence the 1977 play has on my perception, how my knowledge of it makes this play seem smug and shallow. The “support group” scenes, in fact, really belittle the honest emotional support infertile couples can find there by stacking the scenes with buffoons and obviously unqualified counselors. The advances in fertility science since 1977 are paid lip service only, with the representative of “science” being portrayed as a callous fool. And the affects of the fertility regimens are talked about only if they can give the opportunity for shallow “hormones out-of-whack” jokes. Even worse, the final moment of the play is designed for a cheap laugh – never mind that its implication is that the two main characters haven’t spent a second of their ordeal pondering what being parents really means. The ending alone, even if I had no knowledge of “Ashes,” would have led me to dislike this play.
So, in summary, audiences (and other critics) are enjoying this play, and are recommending it. I recommend it for the performances, for the directions, and for the laughs (even the cheap ones). Just don’t think too much about it after you’ve left.
And, if the subject matter appeals to you, I’m sure “Ashes” (by David Rudkin) is available from the Drama Book Club or Samuel French web sites.
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| || Methinks thou art comparing oranges to apples! by line!|
| If one is expecting to bake a pie, an orange will be a dissapointment. However if one accepts an orange for what it is, one may still enjoy the refreshment provided by a delicious glass of its juice!|
| || Au Contraire, Mon Fromage! by Dedalus|
| But, if one is expecting fresh Orange Juice, but is instead served week-old Tang, one can expect profound disappointment. It's in all about expectations, isn't it?|
BTW, I'm glad your positive review hit the wires before my more strict observation -- First Word-of-Mouth usually trumps cranky Seconds ....
And Schadenfreude makes three.|
Saturday, April 26, 2008 ||
The Synchronicity Performance Group is a well established, well accomplished, professional theatre group that has received many accolades over the years from some of the best writers and reviewers around, so they hardly need any praise from a “schlub” like me. But I just had to share my impressions of “Expecting Isabel”, a comedy, which I saw last night (Friday April 25) in the back stage at 7 Stages. |
Man this was a good show!
It had a strong script, strong casting, strong direction and some delightful creativity in the staging. This production positively sizzles! The entire cast brings a wonderful energy, style and verve to the stage!
Normally I can find moments during the performance of a show (whenever a weakness appears in the script, acting, direction or production values) to take a step back and change from audience member to hyper-critical “butt hole” to analyze why I am perceiving a weakness. Since I am an actor, this usually occurs as an “echo” in my head when I hear lines delivered that cause a dissonance with my understanding of a scene or character. That never happened here! The only time I even came close to “checking out” was at the start of the second act when I recognized a monologue as one I had considered doing myself for an audition.
I was totally consumed by this performance from the first word through the final punch line.
The story is the trials and travails of a New York couple who have decided they are ready to have a baby. After a long period of no success, they find themselves on the emotional roller coaster ride that comes with trying to overcome infertility. Each twist and turn in their journey provide the basis for some wonderfully funny, and some truly touching, scenes and characters. The dialogue is crisp and true to character while occasionally offering some wicked wit (Picasso’s “Guernica” with Disney characters as a mural in a kids room!).
The cast is filled with first rate talent from top to bottom.
The leads, Daniel Triandiflou and Stacy Melich are the hub of this production. They inject the absurdist comedy with magnificent energy and then move to heart wrenching pain with exquisite skill and pathos. They bring honesty and sincerity to their character’s relationship which keeps the show centered, believable and entertaining.
The supporting cast is filled with actors who usually get cast as leads. They bring an incredible amount of talent, professionalism and craft to their multiple supporting character roles. There are many changes into many different characters; all of which are full-bodied and fully developed, thanks to their talent. Each transformation is done with a precision that keeps the show flowing smoothly and briskly.
I was especially impressed with the performances of Allen Hagler and David Howard who were outstanding in their various supporting roles. They were complimented by stupendously stellar turns from Suehyla El-Atar, Tiffany Morgan, Maria Sager and Lauren Vandemark. I wanted to be sure to mention everybody by name because I was truly impressed with each and every performer. The sum of this ensemble was indeed greater than its incredibly talented parts!
It’s funny, in a recent posting for another show I saw, I said that the direction was not obvious to me and that was a good thing. It is. But in this show, Rachel May’s direction was incredibly obvious to me, and that was a good thing too! The blocking, staging, character interaction, design and overall “feel” of this production was overflowing with overt creativity and style. It was an example of acquiring great talent in all aspects of the production and using it to its fullest. Only one person is responsible for that: the director.
I know everybody is probably sick of me gushing on this site over shows that I like. Maybe sometime in the future I will feel compelled to post a totally negative review for some show, but for now, there is enough negative energy in the world without me adding to it.
When I see something as enjoyably strong as this one, I feel the need to share it.
“Expecting Isabel” is worth much more than the price of gas, the ticket price, and the price of parking in Little Five Points. It is worth your time.
P.S. – For our younger readers who don’t know what “Schadenfreude” means - look it up!
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| || anyone... by mooniemcmoonster|
| who is a fan of contemporary musical theatre should know what schadenfreude is...ESPECIALLY the younger readers! |
rebekah williams. author of "everything i ever needed to know about life i learned from 'avenue q'"
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