The Midtown International Theatre Festival
Playwriting lesson number one: Choose your symbolism carefully. If you’re gay and you write and perform a solo play about you and your partner’s struggle to adopt children, don’t compare yourself to a real pair of homosexual penguins named Roy and Silo that not only split up after raising a chick, but may have always been nothing more than a misunderstanding - in 2005, after six years, Silo left Roy for a female penguin named Scrappy. And it doesn’t matter if you don’t mention the final outcome.
The prominence of this explosively botched detail, which holds pride of place at the beginning and end of Jeff Seabaugh’s How to Make an American Family, tells you everything you need to know about this grating memoir. It would also call into question everything else Seabaugh discusses during his endless 75-minute recitation if any of it were believable or absorbable to begin with.
But Seabaugh’s attempts to juxtapose his own Arkansas family, most notably his cancer-stricken mother and her developmentally disabled sister, with his own struggles to be a father fall painfully flat. It’s not just that he poorly draws connections between caring for his dying mom and his hopeless aunt with tending to the rambunctious children he ends up with (after two years of putting up with - of course - a religious adoption agency’s sneering prejudices), but also his phony, plastic performance that doesn’t sell this saga as one worth hearing.
Seabaugh’s acting style is so precisely measured, calculated to a dozen decimal places, that there’s absolutely no room for spontaneity to creep in to any of the 15 or so characters he assumes. Worse, his portrayals are condescending bordering on caricature, particularly insulting to the Arkansans he plays as brain-dead, God-fearing rubes, but not much better for a predictably saucy Latina nightclub waitress (whose defining trait is saying “you” as “choo”), those unfeeling adoption folks, or his eventual children. It’s never clear why billed director Samuel Buggeln let Seabaugh get away with this, but the actor (who, per his program bio, has plenty of credits) so infects the show with waxy unreality that you may be forgiven for thinking that this is all some colossal put-on with a delayed payoff.
Alas, there’s no surprise conclusion to this show, and it’s apparently real - Seabaugh's partner, Randy Lichtenwalner, produced the show. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s only as Lichtenwalner that Seabaugh in any way convinces. He drops all the clever voices and facial contortions and simply sits and speaks - to beautiful, memorable effect. The brief moments Seabaugh and Lichtenwalner unite in this way are the only high points of How to Make an American Family, and are enough to make you hope that this pair and their new brood ultimately end up happier than did Roy and Silo.
How to Make an American Family
Workplace dramadies have typically been relegated to television since that medium’s advent - the pithy pointlessness of petty squabbles and surface-level misunderstandings usually evaporate in a theater of any size. That’s just what happens in Crossroads, Meri Wallace’s curiously serious take on life in, and behind the scenes at, a thriving New York City hair salon. The Midtown International Theatre Festival production, which has been directed by DeLisa M. White, doesn’t obscure the play’s loftier pretentions, but doesn’t do much to encourage you to respect them.
A big part of the problem is that this scattershot tale of female actualization is in serious need of a trim. Angela (Annalisa Loeffler) and Nicole (Erinn Holmes) are hairdressers who want to buy the business from its unenthused current owner, Wing (Jason Xaysittiphone), but are held back by their brutish husbands and Nicole’s after-hours affair, Frank (Edgar Caraballo), their coworker. Meanwhile, frequent customer Sara (Leah Vanessa Bachar), a 17-year-old, is pregnant and being forced by her money-hungry mother (Sheila York) to marry the baby’s father. Clerk Boris (Nat Cassidy) is an aspiring author with a secret subject for his big breakthrough novel; his friend and chess partner, Giuseppe (Kristopher Monroe), another hairdresser, is frustrated by his inability to meet eligible women; and street thug Carlos (Daniel Lugo) is outraged with Frank for denying his Puerto-Rican heritage.
Because of all the subplots, which only expand as the play evolves into a shaky whodunit, White’s direction is necessarily halting, the performances are mostly wispy and forgettable, and the central Angela-Nicole story is easy to misplace. Loeffler gradually improves as Angela strengthens in her resolve to fix what’s wrong with her life, but the actress too often gets mired in the character’s broad New York-Italian accent and doesn’t dig deep enough into her stifled desires. But the more restrained Holmes finds an appealing serenity in the quieter moments that not only make Nicole someone you really want to succeed, but allows the character to become a universal symbol of the circumstances everyone at the salon is trying to escape.
It’s not by accident that Nicole is Haitian - she frequently prays to Legba, the god of the Crossroads, who “helps you make a new journey.” It’s a heavy-handed fulcrum for the play itself, which basically works in spite of its overlength (there are two or three false endings) and its familiarity, but it’s not inappropriate. Crossroads lives up to its name, offering many different directions in which to travel - perhaps too many choices for any work this gentle, assuming, and unremarkable to properly process.