Growing Up Amy/First Day Off in a Long Time
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 4, 2005
This double bill of new, short, autobiographical solo shows at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater is funny, smart, and very entertaining. It helps that Amy Rhodes and Brian Finkelstein are expert actors as well as writers; the time you'll spend with both of them as they spin witty and sometimes poignant tales about their pasts is genuinely rewarding.
Growing Up Amy is Rhodes's second one-woman play. Her first, I Enjoy Being a Girl, which debuted here a couple of years ago, dealt with her dating history in high school and college. This piece frames that one, spending some of its time on events in her childhood, as the youngest and least intellectually promising of three children in her typical-yet-not-so-typical Iowa family. Her older sister was smart and preternaturally socially conscious, while her older brother was a math and science wiz (today he is, she tells us, literally a rocket scientist). These two kids applied to Harvard for the fun of turning it down; so trying to be noticed in such company was clearly a challenge. Rhodes tells us about sessions with a child psychologist, games her siblings made her play (one was called "Pig," presumably at least in part because the young Amy was on the pudgy side), and rigorously planned summer vacations.
More engaging are the sections of Growing Up Amy that focus on her mother. The play begins and ends with Rhodes portraying this parent, whom she clearly understands and loves pretty dearly, at the ironing board in her Iowa home, on the phone with the (now grown-up) Amy. Rhodes's portrait of her mother—at once hopelessly provincial (for we're seeing her through the eyes of the slightly jaded urbanite that her daughter has become) and affectionately sympathetic—is full of humor and warmth. I was reminded of Julia Sweeney's take on her mom in God Said, "Ha!" The conversation with a hapless telemarketer is hilarious; worth the price of admission all by itself.
Directed with clarity and without sentiment by Eric Pliner, Growing Up Amy is a charmer. Rhodes—no slouch in the intellect department, her childhood feelings of inferiority notwithstanding—is growing as writer and performer. The best bits of this piece, her previous one, and the next several to come are going to meld into a terrific one-woman play one of these days.
Brian Finkelstein's First Day Off in a Long Time is a rambling monologue mostly about his experiences, about a dozen years ago, working as a volunteer at a suicide prevention hotline. He tells the story in an easy, good-humored manner, heading off on frequent tangents to explain how he happened to get this job and to introduce us to a host of eccentric characters whom he encountered along the way. The most vivid of these is Glen, the one-time hippie who is his boss at the hotline—Finkelstein relaxes his posture and slows down his speech to conjure this fellow, whose vocabulary and world view seem to be an amalgam of tired '60s-era clichés and Baby Boom self-help platitudes.
As the story unfolds, Finkelstein eventually introduces us to another character, a 20-year-old NYU student named Amy who calls the hotline one night and appears to be in danger of killing herself. Finkelstein and his director Adam Swartz manage the transitions from humor to authentic drama deftly, and indeed Finkelstein is at his best performing this unexpectedly moving story. His "narrator" persona is less assured, for the detachment that he's going for there seems to come less naturally to him than the emotional engagement he gives us at his show's high point.
As First Day Off progresses, we learn that it's inspired by the monologues of the late Spalding Gray. The setup should have tipped me off right from the start—Finkelstein sits alone on stage at a desk on which sit a microphone, a glass of water, and a notebook. I was nevertheless surprised when the Gray reference emerged—maybe there's something Finkelstein can do to strengthen that connection earlier on.
The writing, though, is strong throughout, and when the material allows Finkelstein the actor to take over from Finkelstein the standup comic, the show really soars.
Each of the two works on this double bill reveals exceptional talent. I've been a fan of Amy Rhodes for a while, and I will now count myself as one of Brian Finkelstein as well. These are both writer/performers to keep an eye on.