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People Are Living There

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

An Athol Fugard play containing no lyricism is as unusual as an Athol Fugard play containing virulent stereotyping. Yet somehow both these traits apply to the new revival of People Are Living There that just opened Off-Broadway.

Well, wait. Before progressing further, it's probably best to absolve Fugard of as much blame as possible for the fiasco that's imploding nightly at the Peter Norton Space. While Fugard, who is probably best known for "MASTER HAROLD"...and the boys, actually did write a play called People Are Living There in the late 1960s (Lincoln Center produced the New York premiere in 1971) that's ostensibly the basis for this production, any relationship between the play he wrote and the play Suzanne Shepherd has directed here should be considered entirely coincidental.

For she's not only resituated and rewritten the play (apparently with Fugard's consent), she's also reconceptualized it to be, based on the evidence here, an indictment of lower-income New Jersey. Admittedly, this is less implicit in the new Garden State setting of Elizabeth (the play was originally set in South Africa) than in the types - it doesn't seem quite right to call them people - that aimlessly roam the stage.

Chief among these is Milly (O'Mara Leary), a braying, aging woman who runs a ramshackle boarding house. Her boarders include Don (Larry Silverberg), a prying Jewish therapist who talks with his mouth full half the time and spends the other half just sounding like it; Shorty (Ben Rauch), a young boxer and delivery boy who speaks in a high, squeaky voice, and constantly speaks and behaves as though he's already taken one too many blows to the head; and Sissy (Emma Myles), Shorty's trash-talking, trash-wearing, better-than-trash-demanding wife of six months.

The central story is ostensibly about Milly rejoining the human race after splitting with her longtime boyfriend, a boarder who's somehow managed to weasel out of the rent. She plans to throw a party to prove to him that she can get along without him, but has only Don and Shorty for guests. They celebrate what Milly claims is her 50th birthday, scarf down cheap food, avoid conversation, and eventually come to realize that there might be more to life than what they're currently settling for. The ending - which is predictably life-affirming (or, as Shepherd would doubtlessly see it, life-affirmingly predictable) - won't be revealed here.

Nor must it be revealed - this is a shallow, obvious play that ends as all such plays must. There's nothing wrong with stories this simplistic in scope - all forms of entertainment have thrived on them since the beginning of time; there's a place for them. If a writer wants to tackle universal issues, there are few vehicles more suitable - with expectations out of the way, points can be made quickly and then moved away from quickly.

But Shepherd lacks Fugard's strong, clear voice and a discernible point of view, two things that might better imbue the setting, dialogue, and characters with a sense of reality not so easily fabricated. In trying to find an American approximation, Shepherd has done nothing more than parody, if not outright ridicule, these kinds of people. This becomes increasingly difficult and annoying to watch as time passes; 10 minutes with these cartoon complainers is more than sufficient. (Each actor turns in an unconvincing, unbearable performance that does nothing to give a second dimension - let alone a third - to the character he or she is playing.)

A stronger director with more imaginative ideas about the characters might have better created a theatrical interplay between the characters' earthbound outer shells and their soaring interior lives than Shepherd has managed. In directing her own adaptation, Shepherd's own limited ideas, which she develops in only limited ways, unsurprisingly limit the story's potential to uplift or instruct. Her staging is full of stomping, screaming, keening, whining, hitting, and hooting, but these devices grow tiresome quickly; they can't replace the deeper feelings Shepherd and her actors have shunned in favor of surface-level emotions.

This has the side effect of spoiling what should be the play's touching resolution, when it becomes evident to the characters - if, perhaps, only speciously so - that life actually is worth seeing through. Milly wants to finally live for herself, move beyond the sadness and pain she's confined herself to for decades. She wants to run outside, point to her house, and shout to anyone that will listen that people are living there.

As understandable as that is, from where I was sitting Milly's house was bereft of life. And for a play with Athol Fugard's name attached, that's a bitter pill to swallow.

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People Are Living There
Through July 24
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Signature Theatre Company's Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street between 10th & 11th Avenue
Tickets online at TicketCentral