nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 8, 2007
The first act of John Regis's gorgeous and startling new play Linnea takes place on a single magical moonstruck night in Manhattan. As it begins, Danny, a young man who wants to be a writer, is sitting alone on a bench in Tompkins Square Park; it's the early (pre-Rent) 1990s, and this Lower East Side neighborhood is still a little bit funky and a little bit unsavory.
On this April evening, Danny meets a homeless man, whom he christens the "Beggar King"—a sometime actor, now on the skids, who theatrically dispenses the wisdom of the ages along with some wisdom of his own, concluding with a flourish and an extended open palm. Danny also comes across a pretty young woman named Maggie who is setting up a makeshift used-book stand in the park. He's looking for a rare novel by Dostoyevsky (he's obsessed with the Russian author at the moment, and is in fact working on a play based on The Idiot).
Danny meanders next to a bar called the Grassroots Tavern (an actual saloon, located on St. Mark's Place; Regis's play is loaded with this kind of verisimilitude and is, among other things, a bit of an homage to the New York City of a decade ago). Here, Danny meets Cody, an artist who is also something of a con man; Cody easily talks Danny out of most of his current pitcher of beer, and tantalizes him with portraits (drawn and spoken) of a mystery woman named Linnea. Linnea is a topless dancer at a dive called Fallen Angels. Danny is intrigued; knows he shouldn't try to find Linnea but does anyway. It's not long before he's "loaned" her $80 and headed out for a late night on the town with this beautiful but probably dangerous young woman.
So, a dreamy but ordinary young man falls for a stripper; maybe it's been done before, but never quite the way Regis and his simpatico director Peter Dobbins do it here. Linnea's first act is a wild, surreal dream: Bill Sheehan and Matthew Gordon's lighting is all greens and blues—welcoming, cool, springlike; and the East Village locations, as evoked by Todd Edward Ivins's spare, lyrical set, have an Oz-like fantastical quality. Even the people Danny encounters are weirdly off-kilter, from the Actor/Beggar King who appears out of nowhere in the park to the clowns who are the other patrons at the Fallen Angel (clowns literally, I mean: they have red noses and wear funny clothes and carry an assortment of odd, laugh-gathering props; but they're real guys, somehow, too).
So what happens to Danny and Linnea? You need to see the play to find out. All I'll tell you is that almost nothing that happens in Act Two is what you expect, yet it feels entirely organic and natural as it unfolds. The action spans a period of more than two months, and the mood turns darkly, threatening realistic (and the lighting shifts to reds and oranges as well). Danny grows up, and as he does so he stops acting like a tortured character in a Dostoyevsky story and instead finds within himself a quirky nobility that resembles Don Quixote's.
Regis's writing is touchingly romantic without ever feeling sentimental, and Dobbins's direction matches the text note for note, delivering an authentically lovely evening of theatre that, in its celebration of the finest aspects of our common humanity (i.e., art, beauty, compassion—those sorts of things), pretty much stands toweringly alone in the cynical American dramatic landscape of 2007. Linnea's insistence that a man really can be a hero feels almost cathartic. Yet its a great deal of fun, filled with wit and warmth and a cockeyed perspective on the world that's somehow simultaneously wise and blissfully innocent.
The designers—who also include Jessica Lustig (costumes), Scott O'Brien (sound), and Jeremiah Lockwood (composer)—collaborate seamlessly with Dobbins and one another to realize Regis's magical story. This is an altogether stunning production, certainly one of the finest ever undertaken by Dobbins and the Storm Theatre, and indeed one of the most satisfying plays on stage in New York at the moment.
Josh Vasquez, who has been a Storm regular for a few years now, gives a breakthrough performance as Danny, finding the naivete, the exuberance, and the hidden, melancholic hurt of this man, and making his journey in Linnea compelling and completely believable. Jamil Mena plays the con man Cody with a mix of jovial camaraderie and bullying violence that's most effective. Benita Robledo portrays both Maggie and Linnea and creates such distinct, detailed characterizations that you may not realize she's doing double duty until you check the program. The supporting cast is exemplary, with Stephen Logan Day and Gabe Levey hilariously pathetic as the clowns Red and Slim, and Ken Trammell most impressive as the Beggar King.
If you were ever young, not quite sure of your path in life, and in love with a romanticized merry-go-round version of the Big City and the slightly dangerous characters within it, then Linnea will definitely strike a chord in your memory. Regis has composed a beautiful valentine to the idealism of the young artist, and it resonates richly even as it tugs, ever so gently, at our heartstrings.