Those who know Alexander Dinelaris only from his work on last season's Off-Broadway musical Zanna, Don't! might be surprised to discover his talents extend to straight plays as well. One need look no further than his new show at the Pantheon Theatre, Big Kids, to get an even better idea of the scope of his talent. But not as a writer. As an actor.
Dinelaris is playing the central role of Alan, a talented but inexperienced playwright just turning 30, who's caught between conflicting ideas of maturity. Should taking adult life seriously mean he should scuttle his dreams of becoming a playwright and instead manage the restaurant that has long served as his survival job? Or should he sacrifice financial security and fully embrace his creative gifts and build his future from that foundation?
This conflict is played out in every moment of every scene on Dinelaris's face, in his eyes, and in his voice. It's almost as if it's a part of his being inseparable from his innate sense for delivering corrosive comic quips or waving off the most troubling or bewildering of circumstances with a slight turn of his head or change in vocal tone. When he really lets loose with his feelings, however, the subdued force threatens to engulf you like a crackling thunderstorm.
Dinelaris is so in tune with himself, it's perhaps unsurprising that the material he's written for everyone else never seems quite as good. In the case of five of the six other characters, all of whom are faced with similar problems of moving into full-blown adulthood, Dinelaris's perceptions seem much less astute. Their roles aren't necessarily less inherently interesting than Alan - they're all types, visible constructions - but they're given significantly less compelling performances.
Jason (Gerry Vermillion) is a hunky blond with a drug problem who lands a major soap opera role through Alan's help; Chaz (Bones Rodriguez), Alan and Jason's roommate, claims to want an acting career but can't stop partying long enough to take it on; and there are the three women who impact their boyfriends' lives in various ways - Miranda (Darcie Siciliano) wants Alan to take the restaurant job, Daisy (Bellavia Mauro) wants nothing more than to help Chaz but might be helping him too much, and Tara (Stacy Wallace) is Jason's manager and sometimes lover. Most of these portrayals are perfunctory at best.
Only Nicola Riske, who plays a surprisingly lucid blonde bimbo Chaz brings home as a plaything, digs into her character's roots on a level comparable with Dinelaris. Her role is a tiny one (she appears only briefly in two scenes), but she has a keen comic sense, and brings a laserlike intensity to her treatment of a deceptively intelligent woman with less-than-cerebral partying instincts. She all but steals the show.
Mark Steven Robinson's direction is strong - the play moves fluidly and quickly, with the scene transitions creatively and theatrically addressed. Colin Miles Campbell's set is a fine approximation of a low-rent Queens apartment and Peter Ksander's lights subtly aid Dinelaris in defining the central drama of the moment, even when your focus may want to shift between two different onstage happenings.
That happens more often than you might think - Dinelaris enjoys playing with the audience's perspective on events. It's his difficulty reining in his own that proves problematic, though. It's easy to appreciate his intent with this play - the passage from young adulthood to maturity is a difficult one, and, as Avenue Q has proven, one on theatergoers' minds (though that musical deals with the problem from a slightly younger viewpoint). But Dinelaris feels the need to display so many facets of the issue from so many perspectives that he renders his play too unfocused to be truly effective.
The only grounding dramatic element Big Kids has is his performance. It's not enough, but it's a vital, energizing contribution that drives directly home the message he spends most of the play circling around. It's unclear if Big Kids has yet found its final form - if not, it certainly has potential as a real vehicle for sending Dinelaris to stardom. As it is, though, it's unlikely to have quite as profound an effect on anyone else.