East Village Chronicles, Volume 5
nytheatre.com review by Otto/Wilson
June 7, 2008
Evening B (reviewed by Reagan Wilson, 6/8/08)
In a cozy venue, on a forgotten street, nestled in the East Village, Metropolitan Playhouse presents East Village Chronicles, Volume 5, two evenings comprising eight one-act plays inspired by the history and culture of the East Village. I had the pleasure of viewing Evening B, directed by Michael Hardart.
McGurk's "Suicide Hall" Saloon by Dan Evans reminds us of the darker days of the Bowery. In the 1890s the Bowery was filled with rundown saloons and society's rejects to fill the joints. McGurk's was said to have the lowest forms of life and gained popularity due to the number of women who committed suicide at the Saloon. Scott Glascock plays McGurk, a gruff bar owner who is oblivious to the eerily silent woman face down at the front table and less than impressed by his new bar help, a young Irving Berlin, who can't carry a tune any more than he can write one. David Eiduks as MacFarland offers the only impressive news McGurk has heard all night. MacFarland would like to write a featured newspaper article on McGurk's. With fame in sight, McGurk no longer thinks about the bet he made that Steve Brodie weasel out of a Brooklyn Bridge jumping stint and proceeds in gloating about his establishment. The action is quick-paced as McGurk's antagonists enter and exit the main hall, with the cast delivering an exhilarating ride, making this first of four plays a tough act to follow.
McGurk's is followed by Tracking Gertrude Tredwell by Jackob G. Hofmann. Skip ahead to 1965. Ghost hunter Burt, played by actor Chris Harcum, is investigating the former residence of Gertrude Tredwell, known as The Merchant's House. Carrie Heitman plays a curator, passionate about her work and unmoved by Burt's determination to find proof of paranormal activity. The curator's icy attitude towards her unwanted guest left me feeling unconnected with the character. Not until the curator begins sharing her own theory on the unexplainable events at Merchant's House do we see Heitman having fun. Flickering lights add a nice creepy touch to this piece and I have a feeling the atmosphere would have felt twice as eerie had I seen an evening performance instead of the matinee. Hofmann exhibits a fine stroke of the pen through Heitman's last few lines, which are pure comedic gold.
The next historical gem is Debargo Sanyal's East Sixth Street, between First and Second. Welcome to present-day Curry Row. It's after hours at Raj Mahal and Rekha (played by the talented Anita Sabherwal) is helping Kevin with an extra credit assignment. Paul Hufker is delightful as the young Kevin, who's more interested in making a pass at Rekha than passing class. Kevin's plans are foiled when his Gramercy Park-residing dad (Bill Mootos) comes to rescue him from the dangers of the East Village. Hilarity ensues as the charismatic dad and Rekha fall in love in a New York minute. Of course all good things must come to an end and this play had the audience howling with laughter.
For those crying tears of joy over the Curry Row love affair, Kathleen Warnock's All Good Cretins go to Heaven may have evoked tears of sorrow. It's winter sometime around late 2006 or early 2007 and the legendary CBGB's has closed its doors. At the corner of Joey Ramone Place, Lulu laments the East Village she once knew and the venue that once meant so much to her. Lucky for Lulu, Joey Ramone hears her cries and offers a friendly ear and a tasty backwash-filled beer. Amy Fulgham and Will Cefalo proceed to have the conversation that Warnock has probably had with her friends, the same conversation I still have with mine, the same conversation anyone who's really lived in the East Village has had: What happened to this place? The things that made the East Village great... where are they now? One thing seems to be clear, like CBGB's, it's no longer here.
East Village Chronicles reminded me of what I loved about my neighborhood, an ever-changing neighborhood: McGurk's Saloon was torn down in 2005, but East Village residents over the age of 25 still know the name; the Merchant's House (one of my favorite New York City museums) still stands on East 4th Street with the third floor only accessible to the public once a year; Raj Mahal still serves up Indian fare on Curry Row; CBGB's still has a home in the hearts of East Village residents and punk fans everywhere. A delightful and educational evening of theater East Village Chronicles, Volume 5 is one not to be missed.
Evening A (reviewed by Emily Otto, 6/7/08)
Metropolitan Playhouse describes its annual East Village Chronicles series as "new plays inspired by the unique history, culture, and culture clashes of the East Village." The series, now in its fifth year, is undoubtedly a valuable one, not only for unearthing and celebrating the history of this storied neighborhood, but also for producing 8-10 new short plays every year. However, while I strongly support the series and its mission, I left Evening A not entirely impressed with the programming choices.
Of the four plays presented on Evening A, only two are truly specific to the neighborhood: Sharyn Rothstein's The Pickle Lady, which takes place in a Lower East Side tenement-turned-hipster apartment, and Michael Bettencourt and Elfin Vogel's Famine Church, which chronicles the difficult struggle to save St. Brigid's church in Alphabet City. The other two plays, George Holets's M/21 Bellevue and David Parr's South Delancey, despite their East Side-centric titles, could take place in any number of New York locations, which causes me to question their inclusion in this specific series.
That said, both of these plays are perfectly enjoyable. South Delancey is a quirky, energetic piece about a twentysomething woman (Lyndsay Becker) looking for an address that doesn't seem to exist. Along the way, she crosses paths with an umbrella vendor (Joel Nagle), a bratty punk kid looking for her kite (Jenny Greeman), and a man with whom she had a brief fling two years before (Brian W. Seibert). Becker and Seibert have crackling chemistry, and Parr's script serves up a charming slice of New York life on a bustling street corner. Unfortunately, it could be any corner; a reference to CBGB's does not an East Village play make.
Similarly, location seems incidental to M/21 Bellevue. A New Jersey commuter (the manically funny Chris Harcum), in a clever twist on the typical married-with-children American male midlife crisis, develops inexplicable lust for his crosstown bus driver, played with sparkling dry wit by Joel Nagle. The play is set on the M21 bus, where director Melissa Maxwell has cleverly placed characters from the evening's other plays. Despite the fun premise and smart performances, the piece takes a bit too long to reach its destination, and seems to merely travel through the Lower East Side rather than relating to it.
Famine Church deals with an unexpectedly timely subject: the preservation of St. Brigid's Church, which has, after years of committees and fundraisers and conflict, been rescued by an anonymous $20 million gift. The play, of course, was written before the May 22 donation, and features shrill, melodramatic scream-fests between a parishioner, a priest, and a developer. While some of the play's plot points are based on real events, the direction is so heavy-handed that it makes serious scenes play out like prime time soap opera. The happy ending for the real-life church makes the evilly sneering characters of Famine Church seem almost laughable.
While not explicitly featuring historical figures or events, The Pickle Lady offers a fascinating comparison between the Lower East Sides of the early 20th century and today. The piece features a fantastical meeting between a contemporary 26-year-old clothing designer and her great-great-grandmother, a 22-year-old immigrant pickle vendor on Orchard Street. A thoughtful meditation on the bonds of family and the uncertainty of the future, The Pickle Lady acknowledges the wildly different lifestyles and options for young women a century apart while recognizing that no matter how much a neighborhood changes, its residents have comparable struggles and dreams. Of the four plays, Rothstein's is the most grounded in the reality of the East Village and Lower East Side.
I look forward to future volumes of the East Village Chronicles. As long as the series remains focused and stays true to its mission, I have no doubt that this annual event will continue to be a worthy endeavor.