East Village Theatre Festival
nytheatre.com review by Various Reviewers
August 4, 2009
Alphabet City Monologues: Avenue B (reviewed by Matt Roberson)
If the East Village Chronicles: Evening B (see below) leaves one longing for the energy of the streets outside, the series of character-based solo-works billed as the Alphabet City Monologues: Avenue B have the opposite effect. From the earliest moments, the unique story that is the East Village is given centerstage. With this fresh work, on primarily a blank stage bathed in simplistic lighting, the audience bares witness to an incredibly entertaining night of storytelling at its finest.
For the past six years, the creators of these monologues have gone out into the community to meet with, interview, and then reproduce, the lives and characters of actual East Village residents. In a technique made famous by Anna Deavere Smith and Tectonic Theatre's The Laramie Project, the interviews are replicated onstage "verbatim," which holds the potential for giving an audience of outsiders special insight into lives they would otherwise be unable to connect with. Of course, a creative process such as this requires great trust, and without sensitive and capable actors, the building of this unique bridge is impossible. Thankfully, the Metropolitan-supported festival has placed these stories in very capable hands, using three actors who effortlessly bring the excitement, the pain, and the heart of these real-life individuals to the stage.
Opening the night is Abraham Sparrow's The Heat, which tells the story of long-time cop and author Jerry Speziale. Speziale, now the Sheriff for Passaic County, New Jersey, was an undercover DEA agent in the 1970s and '80s, a time when the East Village was held captive by drug dealers and crime. Often working under the moniker of "Crazy Jerry," Speziale, as portrayed by Sparrow, is a man more than confident in how thrilling his old war stories are. Primarily sitting behind his wooden desk, the cop recounts close call after close call, all the while shedding a very thought-provoking light on why he thinks people in his position work under such dangerous conditions (hint: it's the adrenaline, stupid!). While I would have enjoyed a deeper exploration into how his nights of buying smack and cheating death affected his personal life, clearly, that was not what Officer Speziale wanted to talk about. And in the end, who cares?
The second monologue, Nowhere of the Middle, written and performed by Jared Houseman, recounts the early, and lawless, life of middle-aged handyman Matthew Bertolini. The opposite of Speziale, Bertolini is a man who has spent his life on the move, always chasing the next bet. Like the DEA Agent however, Houseman's character is a man who also relishes the opportunity to recount for an audience one of his wild stories, like the time he stole a big rig at the age of 13. Whether or not the wilder ones are true is of no matter. We're here, and we are listening. As a man who has led a life that requires an impenetrable wall to be built around his inner-physique, Bertolini only once pauses long enough to allow us a peek into why he'll always be willing to gamble. Engaging, brash, and just a little bit frightening, Houseman's Bertolini is as entertaining as they come.
Closing the night is the evening's most touching portrait. In My American Style, Lisa Barnes embodies the story of Russian immigrant Lyudmila. This piece stands out from the others, as it is less about telling a series of stories, and more about exploring a character's internal story. With Barnes's portrait, we hear a few personal experiences, but more importantly, we see the essence of the woman those experiences have helped to shape. Coming to the states at the age of 55, Barnes's Lyudmila is a determined, steadfast woman, confident in her personal philosophy, though equally sympathetic to alternative ideas. And giving a unique shape to this individual perspective, and in particular Lyudmila's theological leanings, is her upbringing under Communist rule in the Soviet Union. To hear this very Russian perspective recounted is as educational as it is entertaining, as it is impossible to view the USSR as an American without the well-developed biases we were taught as children. In My American Style, Lyudmila is a proud, steadfast woman, and through Barnes's vulnerable, open-hearted tribute, we are able to see this all the more.
East Village Chronicles: Evening B (reviewed by Matt Roberson)
The Evening B series opens with Michael Bettencourt's The Alamo, whose story centers on a chance encounter between a street-lady/philosopher/activist and a fresh-faced student at nearby NYU. After she catches him taking pictures of her, Steel Eye loudly informs the boy that his act is copyright infringement, as she is the proud owner of her weathered face. When he refuses to pay her fee of $10, the real story of the play begins, as the old timer attempts to teach the naive undergrad a thing or two. Sadly though, this short play's attempt to teach leaves its audience with more questions than answers. Steel Eye, well-played by Elizabeth Bove, speaks in a coded English of pop-philosophy truisms and famous quotes that, while somewhat interesting to hear, is never clear enough so as to direct its listeners in one way or the other. Equally muddy is the reason why Bitters, a self-absorbed know-it-all, sticks around in the first place. While clearly this play is about the bilateral communication that can occur between the old and new residents of the East Village, with so much left unexplained, communication proves to be The Alamo's greatest weakness.
Day Old Bread, by Robert Anthony, follows. Here, on a well-worn bench in Tompkins Square Park, Buzz and Maxie, two elderly men and long-time neighborhood residents, sit and work through a discussion about old memories, the passage of time, and why birds no longer come to the park. While Day Old Bread is sentimental, and looks a lot like the "two old men" plays and films that we've all seen, it turns out to be a very nice piece of short theatre. The characters are well drawn, with the thoughtful, though mournful, Maxie playing a perfect counter to Buzz's more aggressive, "we're not dead yet" outlook. Bread is a funny, soulful play that, while not specifically about the East Village, contains a profound core centered on the question of why we choose the things that we do to anchor us in this rapidly changing universe. The play also features two nuanced, well-developed performances by Alfred Gingold and Laurence Cantor, both of whom help to make Day Old Bread the clear highlight of the evening.
Diane Spodarek's Cheese is the night's third play. Returning to Tompkins Square Park, the piece focuses on a long overdue meeting between two women. Waiting in the park is Sara, a now frail woman who has spent the last two decades raising the daughter of Roberta, an aging singer who has sacrificed her parental duties for her now-passing career. On top of raising the abandoned child's grandchild and a shaky marriage, Sara is experiencing, and denying, the early stages of dementia. The play's synopsis wants to say that the play is about the two women coming together to save "their" granddaughter Lucy, who is addicted to drugs. However, this never really comes to pass. Instead, the play spends most of its time focused on Sara and Roberta, with Sara jumping at the chance to unleash years of resentment towards Roberta. Taking the barrage any way she knows how (e.g., a small flask), Roberta is forced to confront her very serious shortfall as a parent, as well as struggle with the deteriorating mind of her old friend. Both performances handle the material well. However, Spodarek, perhaps constrained by this short form, attempts to explore more than reasonably possible, leaving a work that has less an impact than a story about negligent parents, mind-loss, and gentrification probably should have.
Rounding out the night is Tower of Toys, by Jackob G. Hofmann. In Toys, Ali and Leslie are a lesbian couple who have come to the 6th Street/Avenue B Community Garden, in the pouring rain, to pay tribute to recently deceased artist Eddie Boros. Standing at the foot of Boros's Jenga-like "Toy Tower," composed primarily of found objects, it doesn't take long before the cracks in this relationship begin to show. After four years together, Leslie struggles to feel at ease with the relationship, all the while hearing every single tick made by her biological clock. Her partner Ali, however, enjoys what she and the much older Leslie have, though she shares none of Leslie's need to focus on the inevitable passage of time. Adding some needed energy to the production is Scott Casper as a handicapped street-friend of Boros's, who embodies the unique blend of street-wisdom and eccentricity the neighborhood is in part known for. As with Cheese, Tower of Toys has difficulty tying up its ends in the short time allotted. Additionally, the production is under-directed, a problem that plagues the entire evening.
Walking home from the Metropolitan, weaving through the regular Friday night mix of punks, drunks, and NYU students, all screaming for reasons unknown, I wondered why this palpable energy was so absent from a night of plays about this very neighborhood? Though all well-crafted and interesting in their own right, the works of Evening B never reached the point I expected; that moment where they proudly scream out, "You are now entering one of the most creative and destructive areas New York has to offer. Be Cautious, But Enjoy!" Instead, with a few moments of exception, the play's reflected city parks and corners that unfortunately, can be seen in any number of America's increasingly bland urban areas, the East Village not included.
East Village Chronicles: Evening A (reviewed by Martin Denton)
Metropolitan Playhouse kicks off their East Village Theatre Festival with the sixth annual edition of East Village Chronicles, a program of original short plays about Metropolitan's Alphabet City/Lower East Side neighborhood. I caught Evening A, which is a program of four pieces, each about 20 minutes long, each in its way a sentimental valentine to the welcoming and nurturing spirit of New York City in general and the ever-changing and ever-accomodating East Village in particular.
The night kicks off with Pam Dickler's Promising, which takes place on a New Jersey Transit train heading to Manhattan's Penn Station. (Laurence Cantor, in an unbilled offstage cameo, plays the NJT conductor with convincing panache, calling out the stops—"Secaucus! Secaucus next!") Crowded near each other on this particular train car are four somewhat disparate souls. Angie is the one we notice first, as she shouts several decibels too loudly into her cellphone to assorted friends and acquaintances. Her neighbor, a quiet, well-dressed man whose name, we will learn, is Ben, is visibly annoyed by her antics...and he's palpably surprised when, after disconnecting from a call, she turns to him and picks up a conversation with him that he didn't even know they'd started. Eventually another passenger, Xavier, joins in: Angie and Xavier are selling Ben, who is from Pittsburgh, on the joys of their neighborhood, the Lower East Side. It turns out, though, that Ben knows more about the area than they imagine, and the tone of the play turns sweetly somber as his story is divulged. Dickler adds an interesting twist near the end of her play about the ways that buildings and landmarks morph and survive in a city as rooted in both history and change as New York is—I would have liked more exploration of that intriguing theme. Sarah Hankins dominates Promising as the gregarious and rambunctious Angie, with Scott Casper (Ben), Alejandro Rodriguez (Xavier), and Elka Rodriguez (Sera, Xavier's "girlfriend") lending support.
Getting By: The First Five Days, by George Holets, comes next. It's about Luka, a man who has returned to NYC after about 30 years of a more-or-less conventional existence upstate in order to pursue his dream of becoming a playwright. The piece unfolds in a Starbucks; in five scenes (over five days) we see Luka acclimate to his new neighborhood and, more significantly, the new neighborhood acclimate to him. Neither Inez, the self-described wannabe actress from Miami, nor the snooty Starbucks Barrista can ultimately resist Luka, whose view of his once and future hometown is downright Sinatra-esque. Alfred Gingold anchors the play as Luka; Elka Rodriguez is delightful as Inez and Ethan Sher is spot-on as the Barrista; and Jacqueline van Biene and Sarah Hankins take smaller (though memorable) roles.
The East Fourth Street Years follows. Written by Morna Murphy Martell, this is the most emotionally complete work on the bill. Told in flashback vignettes, it recounts a youthful fling in which Howie, a 19-year-old Jewish boy from Baltimore, and Mary, a 21-year-old "older woman" from California, fall in love with each other and with their grungy East Village block in 1959. Both aspire to be Broadway stars, but they make do opening a cafe/performance spot that they eventually call "Hubert Alley," accidentally helping to birth off-off-Broadway in the process. (I wondered if any of the events depicted here are from Martell's own life; the program doesn't definitively answer this question.) Howie and Mary also befriend a neighbor, a survivor of Auschwitz named Abie, who runs the nearby deli/grocery, and their experiences with him help them gain perspective and maturity. This is a gentle, compelling tale, and features excellent performances by Laurence Cantor (Abie), Sarah Hankins (Mary), and Ethan Sher (Howie).
Wrapping up the program is Chad Beckim's whisper of a play, The Bess Shit, in which Cesar and Diana say farewell to one another and to her East Village apartment. I was a little unclear as to the exact nature of their relationship—the apparent disparity in age between actors Alejandro Rodriguez and Jacqueline van Biene made me unsure whether they were former roommates, lovers, or something else. But Beckim has provided some gorgeous, lyrical writing about some of the small things we take for granted but ought to cherish as New York City-dwellers that make this piece a perfect summation for this charming evening of celebration of the spirit of Our Town.
Laura Livingston's direction of all four pieces is brisk though pitched perhaps more than it should be toward the center section of the audience (the Playhouse has seating on three sides of the stage). Simple, spare design elements work nicely throughout.