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Ninth and Joanie

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Ninth and Joanie
Bob Glaudini (sitting) and Kevin Corrigan
Photo by Kate Edwards

Bad choices suffuse the lives of the men in the Italian-American Molino family of South Philadelphia in the year 1986, which Brett C. Leonard depicts in his new play Ninth and Joanie. As we see in the LAByrinth Theater Company production at the Bank Street Theater, those decisions have robbed a father and his two sons of a sister, a mother, and respect for themselves and each other. So crippled are they by their unfortunate actions, in fact, that you would think the unavoidable reckoning that's coming would guarantee searing drama in the good-ol' Eugene O'Neill style. Alas, no, because in the realm of bad choices, these three self-inflicted losers cannot hold a candle to Leonard and his director, Mark Wing-Davey.

Ninth and Joanie is — in this staging, at any rate — the rare play that gets everything wrong. The writing, casting, design, and especially direction are so bewildering, so poorly conceived, that most of the time you spend watching them failing to coalesce into anything coherent you're convinced it all must be a colossal put-on. But everything is delivered with such intense, almost oppressive, earnestness that the entire enterprise can only have been genuinely meant. In which case: egad.

The implosion begins in the opening instant, too. That's when sixtysomething dad Charlie (Bob Glaudini) plods into his living room, removes his clothes, and sits, uttering not a peep as he stares aimlessly ahead. He's eventually joined by his son, Rocco (Kevin Corrigan), who does essentially the same thing, but moving even more slowly. He walks as though even the thought of a step causes him intense pain, and as though he's trudging slow-motion through a field of super glue. From Glaudini's first appearance to the first spoken word unfolds a period of some 20 of the most agonizing minutes I've ever experienced in the theatre, made even more unbearable by lighting designer Bradley King having cloaked them all in illumination so dim that you can barely make out the actors' facial features. And you certainly can't tell where they are.

This is clearly intended to highlight the characters' disconnection from each other and their surroundings, which is understandable given (as we're soon learn) that they just buried Charlie's wife and Rocco's mother, who killed herself. But what little of the "action" you can discern is absolutely intractable; you don't know who these people are, and their refusal to say or do anything makes it seem that neither Leonard nor Wing-Davey cares if you do. Things pick up a bit when Rocco's brother, Michael (Dominic Fumusa), arrives, as he's at odds with both bro and dad for presently unspecified but obviously powerful reasons. But the first thing he does is, again silently, is put on a loud rock record, and up the volume while his brother constantly shouts at him, so it takes some time (and even more patience) to get there.

The play doesn't improve much after that point, because once the performers start speaking and interacting whole new problems arise. Corrigan is game but mechanical, and not in the well-oiled way: His movements, whether supposedly sober or drunken, have the herky-jerky motion of a malfunctioning wind-up toy, and the words that manage to escape his mouth un-mushed ring with a hollow yet clenched tone that indicates indifferent annoyance more than any identifiable emotion. Fumusa finds a more convincing honesty in the despondent Michael until an event near the end of the first act inspires him to overplay fits of quivering neck and googly eyes, as though such things actually communicate bone-deep rage when there's no anchor to them. Glaudini looks and sounds bored by everything around him; given how much of his role requires sitting in a La-Z-Boy or moping upstairs, I can't say I blame him.

David Meyer's shabby set inexcusably forces huge portions of the show to take place in a kitchen placed so far upstage (and behind two walls) as to be obscured by most of the audience, in an alcove blocked by furniture, or in a corner of the room behind the couch. Wing-Davey's blocking has little chance in such an environment, but neither it nor its pacing evince any sense of energy or common sense: The final stage picture, for example, involves King slowly bringing up the house lights, while leaving the actors morosely milling about onstage. Is the show still going? Is it over? Do the performers even know? Such confusion is, sadly, not atypical.

It's only a loss insofar as the minuscule threads of plot we encounter suggest a gripping family tragedy was at some point a possibility. The tension between the three men is solid, well grounded, and believably laid out; the loss of the women (particularly their sister, the Joanie of the title) has thrown their lives into chaos, but nonetheless offers some chance for redemption. But Leonard is more concerned with effect than psychological detail: Dad's fondness for big band music and Rocco's addiction to his Ouija board substitute the deep exploration of feelings the play demands. Perhaps Leonard and Wing-Davey's approach (which they also took in the better, but seriously flawed, UNCONDITIONAL for LAByrinth in 2008), is realistic, but it's not theatrical; and it proves devastating for the viewer — and not in a good way.

So it's nice to be able to report that there are two saving graces, though they lamentably appear in only the second act. The first is Rosal Colón, who plays Michael's wife Isabella with a passionate detachment that hints at an anger and loss too deep to express on the surface — much more convincing, and human, than what you see from her frenzied cast mates. Second is eight-year-old Samuel Mercedes, who endears without grating as Michael's son Carlito. He conveys with pinpoint accuracy the slowly wounding soul of a boy who knows that something in his life is changing, but hasn't fully processed all he's lost — but is determined to survive anyway. He embodies a cheerful vision of hope within hopelessness, and a reminder that any family can learn (or be taught) to carry on through the most trying circumstances. You know Carlito will survive what he must endure; if only his and his family's stories weren't also such a debilitating endurance test.


Ninth and Joanie
Through May 6
Bank Street Theatre, 155 Bank Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.labtheater.org