Shortly After Takeoff
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 11, 2006
Stuart Warmflash's new play Shortly After Takeoff is a tender and affecting coming-of-age story. It's about Ethan, a teenager living in a town in suburban Long Island in the late 1960s. His father died some years ago; his mother works during the day, is going to school at night, and spends most of whatever spare time remains protesting the Vietnam War. His brother Chip is away at college, and when he's home he's fixing things or seeing his girlfriend.
Ethan is clearly very bright, but he's obviously a loner. He's got no friends and is something of a misfit socially—his penchant for talking to himself (or, during a biology lab, the frog he's dissecting) doesn't help matters much. He's also an artist: he loves to make sculptures, and he's good at it. But his mother doesn't take seriously this one thing that he loves, pushing him on a more traditional path toward college and a profession.
The play focuses on two key incidents in Ethan's adolescent life. In the first act, the mother, Rosie, receives a marriage proposal from a dentist named Chester. In Act Two, a stroke of fate causes one of the most popular (and prettiest) girls in school, Karen, to require Ethan's aid and discretion. Together, these events help Ethan push along toward figuring out who he is and, more important, who he's capable of becoming.
Warmflash has crafted the piece commendably, with lots of winning and often funny dialogue, especially in the scenes involving the two brothers:
ETHAN: Richie said unhooking a girl's bra isn't easy. Is there some kind of method?
CHIP: Yeah, get the girl to take it off herself. Next.
The boys' relationship feels completely real, due in no small part to the playing of Eric Shelley and Anthony Bagnetto as Ethan and Chip, respectively. Shelley, with a long list of credits, pulls off the very difficult task of convincing us that he's a teenager, while Bagnetto gets the disagreeable sullenness of the college kid who hates being home for vacation when he could be somewhere—anywhere—else with his friends. The chemistry between the two young actors is palpable, too.
There's a similar naturalness on stage between Patricia Kalember, who plays the boys' difficult mother Rosie, and Lucy McMichael as her sister, the (generally) more easy-going Ann. Rounding out the ensemble are Bruce Mohat as the awkward Chester and Adelia Saunders as Karen.
The plot twist in the second act that brings Karen to Ethan's side against the odds feels a bit unlikely, but otherwise the story is always compelling and engaging. In the end, Shortly After Takeoff reminded me of The Glass Menagerie and Broadway Bound with its theme of a young man getting ready to take leave of his domineering mother; if this piece doesn't quite plumb the depths of Rosie's character, it nevertheless gives us, in Ethan, a sympathetic central character whose course interests and concerns us.
Warmflash has directed his own script skillfully in this first full production from Harbor Theatre Company. Production values are all splendid, especially Mark Symczak's economical set and Jeffrey E. Salzberg's very effective lighting design.