Post Modern Living
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 17, 2010
The antidote to the surfeit of soulless synthetic musical comedies on Broadway awaits you at The Club at La MaMa, in the form of Post Modern Living, a musical (kind of) by Richard Sheinmel, with songs by Clay Zambo, whose casual informality, honesty, and warmth are rivaled only by its dazzlingly high entertainment quotient. I loved this show, and what I loved most about it was that it didn't spend all its capital trying to cajole or bully me into liking it—it got to me the old-fashioned way, with wit and charm and intelligence. The kind of show you definitely want to hang with.
Post Modern Living is, in fact, really two shows: a pair of mini-plays about the same set of core characters linked only by a single line of dialogue. The opening piece is called "The Twelfth Day"; it takes place on the twelfth day of Christmas, but it could almost be any day of the year. Sheinmel presents a slice of life in which various events occur, all of which seem momentous right when they're happening and then recede into lost trivial detail, precisely the way real life unfolds for all of us. The characters in the story are Mitch Mitchell, an East Village performance artist not unlike Sheinmel himself (and indeed portrayed by Sheinmel); Chester, his longtime partner in life and love; Joy, Mitch's mom; and friends Gerrie and Meg, who are Mitch and Chester's guests for the little Twelfth Day of Christmas party that caps this playlet. Mitch narrates sometimes; and other times a character named Uncle Louie guides us through the day, almost always with a guitar slung around his neck and a song on his lips. Mitch goes to the doctor; he and Chester briefly debate where they would go to live if the Republicans make a political comeback; Gerrie gets drunk at the party; Mitch and Chester tell their friends the story of how they met. Nothing happens and everything happens and Sheinmel lets it all just hang there, content not to find a moral or even a button for this wondrous and endearing piece; the realness is what makes it so magically perfect.
The second item on the agenda is more narrative-driven. It's called "Uber-Mom" and is indeed about Joy and what happens when she finds a lump in her breast that could possibly be cancer. It unfolds in Joy's kitchen, where Mitch is visiting and the two are preparing a meal; as they chop the salad ingredients, Joy recounts her trips to the hospital and her experiences with a lab technician named Grace who, Joy discovers, has a spirit guide named Gertrude. Mitch and Joy's loving conversation is interrupted occasionally by phone calls from Mitch's brother (who I guess suffers from bipolar disorder or something similar?), Robby.
The songs are more organically part of the first piece than the second, and they aren't that many in number, but they give the show a lively flavor. We're constantly aware that we're being told stories (sometimes within other stories); the whole point of the show, I think, is to revel, as a group—audience and performers—in the companion arts of listening and sharing with other living, breathing humans, all in a room together. The richness of this particular experience cannot be duplicated on the Internet or in a big auditorium where a manufactured entertainment is being unspooled.
Sheinmel is a smart and wry writer and performer, and I'm eager to see him in both capacities again soon. His fellow actors—Mick Hilgers (Chester), Catherine Porter (Meg and Grace), Briana Davis (Gerrie and Gertrude), Frank Blocker (Dr. Zappi and Robby), and Wendy Merritt (Joy)—all do fine work here. Chris Orbach as Uncle Louie (and in other incidental roles), leading the four musical numbers, is the glue that holds the night together snugly. Zambo's songs are melodic and genuinely incisive and witty; they are beautifully performed by an onstage trio consisting of Scott Ethier (piano/musical director), Gabriel Luce (bass), and Dan Acquisto (drums).
Director Jason Jacobs realizes the work beautifully on The Club's small, intimate stage. All of the production elements are spare and simple, with Sheinmel changing his costume unobtrusively on stage when necessary and most of the few props accessible to the actors from a couple of hanging shelves spaced around the playing area.
This is the second installment in the Mitch Mitchell saga (the first was Modern Living, back in 2006). I hope many more are still to come.