Looking for the Pony
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 24, 2009
There once were two children who could see the bright side of any situation. One day, they are put in a room filled with manure. Hours later they are discovered laughing, scooping up the manure, digging underneath. "What on earth are you doing," the children are asked. With beaming smiles they answer, "All this poop, there has to be a pony in here somewhere."
Thus begins Andrea Lepcio's gorgeous, wise, and moving play, Looking for the Pony. The play is set, the script tells us, in the places where cancer takes us; now you know what the manure is in this story. What makes the play transcendent—not a tragedy; not a weepie melodrama about a fatal illness—is that the two sisters who are the leading characters in this story, like the ones in that little fable, never lose sight of the pony they're searching for: never lose sight that the seeking is what ultimately matters.
I love this play. In fact, I loved the earlier, much shorter version of it so much that back in 2003 I published it in one of my play anthologies. Lepcio has taken several years to expand Looking for the Pony into a full-length piece and there is risk associated with an endeavor like that—to take something that's simple and pure at 20 minutes in length and understand how to enlarge and transform it into something that's 90 minutes long and just as simple and pure. She has succeeded. The new play is like the old one, but different too. They both deserve space in the dramatic canon.
This new full-length Looking for the Pony tells the story of two smart loving women and the (sometimes metaphorical) places they go during three impossible years in which one of them—Lauren, the elder sister—battles cancer, while the other—Eloisa, the younger sister—restarts her life, shifting from a well-paying career in finance to her true vocation as a writer. Two life journeys, characterized by hope and fear and pain and passion, thus run parallel and also juxtapose in this deeply felt tale.
It is a serious and sad story, no doubt about it, but Lepcio nevertheless finds ways to fill it with warmth and humor. In the scenes where the sisters do battle against the insane and inane bureaucracies of the world, the play is richly satirical; here's Lauren's gynecologist, right after she's delivered the first round of bad news to her patient:
Here's the name of a doctor. Immediately you are beyond what this office can do. This is the name of the first doctor, you need a surgeon, and then an oncologist, or an oncologist, and then a surgeon. There needs to be a surgeon, but there will be an oncologist, and a surgeon, both, and a radiologist, although from the way the tissue looks on film: there is no doubt you have cancer.
This is the darkest brand of black humor: precisely what's needed to get these women—and us—through the tribulations that await them.
The shape of the play is loose and nonlinear, as Eloisa (who is our narrator) jumps back and forth through time and space to try to make sense of an event that may have a chronology but cannot be said to have an underlying logic. J. Smith-Cameron, who portrays Eloisa with a mix of competence and vulnerability that feels precisely right, is onstage for nearly the entire play, guiding us carefully and sometimes breathlessly through this world in which she suddenly finds herself. Deirdre O'Connell is Lauren, moving through the stages of her illness with valor and raw humanity. It must be noted that Smith-Cameron and O'Connell have remarkable chemistry together on stage; it's hard not to believe that they are actually sisters.
Everyone else in Looking for the Pony—doctors, nurses, cancer patients, rabbis, etc.—is portrayed by two apparently superhuman actors, Debargo Sanyal and Lori Funk, who switch clothes and personas with astonishing rapidity and precision. Stephan Golux's direction is sharp and incisive and thoughtful, and the spare and efficacious production design (sets by Adam Koch, lighting by Aaron Copp, costumes by Matthew Hemesath, and sound by Jessica Paz) serves the piece beautifully. (Special note must be made of the wigs that either Hemesath or props designer Joseph Egan found for O'Connell and Sanyal—a wonderful and very human note of levity in the midst of an increasingly serious circumstance.)
What's ultimately uncovered is the oft-forgotten truth that living (as opposed to surviving) is the only thing that counts; squandering even a moment is the greatest tragedy. "I'm not done," Lauren says repeatedly during the play, and she's not selfishly trying to steal a blessing but rather simply putting into words the most profound human truth.