Thicker Than Water
nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
March 1, 2007
The 2007 edition of Youngblood and Ensemble Studio Theater's annual peek into the future, Thicker Than Water, definitely has a few outstanding moments within it. The talent pool of Youngblood, described as a "collective of emerging professional playwrights under 30," does show significant creative potential in its midst, and this theater mixtape packs a wallop at the end of the evening with an explosive contribution from Qui Nguyen. The curators, Graeme Gillis and R.J. Tolan, have also done well with the pool of actors and directors at their disposal, which makes some of the weaker scripts of the evening go down smoothly.
Running at a colossal two hours and forty minutes, Thicker Than Water unfortunately begins with a bit of a misfire, The Jamal Lullabies, written by Emily Conbere and directed by Tolan. Ostensibly, it is four high school girls singing both a cappella and accompanied by an acoustic guitar for their deceased bad-boy hero Jamal. This piece reappears as a transition between all of the other plays in the collection. The actresses all have terrific voices and truly sing well, but the piece itself is neither comic nor tragic and none of them is costumed as if she would have gratuitous sex and do drugs with the unseen Jamal. Plus, it destroys the continuity of the evening from piece to piece.
Happily the evening rebounds quickly with the surreally funny The Roosevelt Cousins, Thoroughly Sauced by Michael Lew. This piece uses a crazy blend of modern slang and historical references to tell its bizarre story of the Roosevelts hanging out in a nursing facility in Georgia. FDR is swigging moonshine to get over his polio and is debating whether to run for governor of New York. In between attempts to bed Eleanor, the topics range from mocking cousin Teddy to a brilliant spoof on Howard Dean. The play contains excellent direction from Moritz von Stuelpnagel and great execution from the cast, led by a hysterically over-the-top Gregg Mozgala as Franklin and the charming Pepper Binkley as Eleanor.
Group, written by Annie Baker, is a far more subdued piece that makes for a nice change of pace. Subtly directed by Alex Timbers, it's the story of sensitive writer Joyce (Catherine Curtin) and West Coast slacker-cool guy Josh (Lance Rubin), who meet for a writer's group in which the rest of the group never appears. They cast out the writers' demons, share from their books/diaries, and realize they have as much connection as the opposite ends of a battery. It's a gently funny piece that Timbers and the actors wring the most out of.
Triage, written by Sharyn Rothstein and directed by Tolan, starts out intriguingly enough as a couple, Joe (William Jackson Harper) and Sara (Binkley), stumble into a hospital clinic run by two indifferent nurses, Ronny (Curtin) and Kenny (Mozgala). Sara's choking to death, and Ronny and Kenny take turns joking around and trading barbs about the inadequate health care system to Joe. The comedy runs out after two or three minutes, the satire peters out after five, and then the dramatic twist at the end isn't shocking or funny, just abrupt. Ultimately this piece just left me scratching my head and wondering about the wisdom of its inclusion.
The fifth selection, Rob, written by Sam Forman, focuses on two concurrent plotlines involving Henry (Rubin) and Emily (Julie Leedes), who have broken up. Henry is an emo singer-songwriter who is heartbroken that he caught Emily with the titular character Rob (Justin Reinsilber). He visits his upscale friends Nick (Paco Tolson) and Camilla (Binkley) for some sympathy. Nick snorts coke and tells Henry to move on without her, while Camilla's far more sympathetic and clearly Henry and Camilla would have a simmering connection without Nick in the picture. Suddenly, Emily and Rob burst onstage making out. At this point—I would guess through both the writing of Forman and the skillful direction of Marlo Hunter—the piece seamlessly intertwines the two stories visually on stage. Both scenes play out alternately and the actors crisscross each other without crossing into each others' playing spaces—it is a fascinating piece to watch.
A ten-minute intermission and then on to and the baby makes three by Courtney Brooke Lauria, with direction by Melissa Kievman. Julie (Leedes) and Aaron (Ted Schneider) play a couple who come home to their apartment, decorated and littered with baby paraphernalia, after having just given birth to a stillborn. It begins promisingly, if soberingly, but Julie immediately becomes crazy and believes that her stillborn child is calling her on the telephone and that the TV (played by Jeffrey Nauman) is talking to her. Ultimately the play become one-note piece, until radically at the end when skeptical Aaron suddenly hears the voices as well, which I couldn't buy into at that point.
The true star of the entire evening is the electric contribution from Qui Nguyen, called Bike Wreck. With exquisite direction from John Gould Rubin, Bike Wreck is absolutely riveting theater. It opens with Messenger (stunningly portrayed by Harper), and Delivery (the equally brilliant Arthur Acuna) on bicycles with a messenger bag and Chinese food, respectively. They trade stories of white jerks, wade through cultural differences, and devise a plot (mostly by Messenger) to make more money by robbing the occasional Caucasian. When they decide to drink heavily before settling on robbing The Man (Reinsilber) in the East Village, a few ill-timed jokes go a bit wrong and set off a disastrous course. The dialogue from Nguyen shines. Harper and Acuna are absolutely pitch perfect—it feels like you are watching two authentic people working crappy jobs in New York City argue and live and rob and fight their way in and out of trouble. If Bike Wreck isn't already slated to be its own full-length or part of a larger collection, it should be fast-tracked in that direction immediately. These characters leap off the stage and entangle the audience in their story—it is a testament to all of the artists involved.