10 Things To Do Before I Die
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
May 24, 2009
Sisterly relations are explored in depth in Zakkiyyah Alexander's sometimes funny, sometimes sweet, all-the-time leaden new play 10 Things to do Before I Die, the opener of Second Stage Uptown's summer season. In fact, it is Alexander's script, a new commission by the Time Warner Commissioning Program, which brings down the intelligent production directed by Jackson Gay.
The plot concerns two sisters, Vida, a New York City public school drama teacher, and Nina, a writer who used their youth for a roman a clef and has no inspiration for the follow-up. They haven't spoken since the book was published. Neither is particularly thrilled with her life: Vida, after a string of unsuccessful relationships, is seeing a married man; Nina is unsatisfied living with a good guy. One day, Nina receives boxes, her late father's worldly possessions. She invites Vida over to go through the boxes and they discover the dead man's bucket list. The second act follows their quest to complete the list and reconcile their relationship.
That course of action, which I predicted after the boxes arrived, is only half true. In fact, I think that that synopsis would be a more satisfying version than what's on stage. The bucket list isn't revealed until the middle of Act Two, after a long, entirely expository first act of nothing else but Vida and Nina whining in circles about how unhappy they are. They don't go on a journey to complete the list; their relationship seems to heal itself after they shed everything that's brought them down. For a play called 10 Things to do Before I Die, there's suspiciously little that relates to the title. I would imagine—and this is just a guess—that the title had a lot more relevance in the development stages of the piece.
Natalie Venetia Belcon and Tracie Thoms (Vida and Nina, respectively), are far stronger actors than the roles deserve. That they can garner sympathy from two hours of whining says a lot about their talent. Compassionate, well thought-out performances are delivered by the men, Francois Battiste as Nina's long-suffering boyfriend, Dion Graham as Vida's married lover, and Kyle Beltran as Vida's student, who has a subplot all his own revolving around familial abuse and A Streetcar Named Desire, the play Vida is teaching her class. Vida, too, was quite possibly a victim of child abuse, perhaps that's what caused her unhappiness, but it's not fully explored. Streetcar is introduced in the opening monologue and mentioned throughout, making it seem like Alexander is intentionally setting us up for plot points that mirror Tennessee Williams. Not so.
Gay, who keeps the pacing speedy in spite of the talky piece, makes very clear, interesting choices, especially for frequent extended dream sequences. Add an appropriately cluttered set (designed by Wilson Chin), evocative lighting (by Thomas Dunn), and incidental music by Broken Chord Collective and you have a show that's great to look at. The only design flaw is the costumes (by Jenny Mannis). Whose idea was it to keep Nina in the same pajamas for the entire show?
If only the script were on par with the rest of the production.