Off Broadway Reviews
The New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC)
There are few things sadder or more tedious in the theatre than a beautifully structured play that fritters away its potential because its author doesn't know when enough is enough. And that's just the case with Confirmation, the promising but plodding play written and directed by Vincent Marano that is now playing at the New York International Fringe Festival.
At first glance, the play would appear to have all the important elements: weighty subjects, a solid slate of characters, and a fair amount of humor. But that can be a lot to juggle, especially when the play also needs to make several different political statements to justify contemporary relevance even though it's set in 1989. Before long, it starts to feel that Marano is working too hard to keep his bowling pins in the air and is not focused enough on merely making things move.
That's particularly evident through the dragging first hour or so, which introduces us to Joe (Ethan Downing), an almost-30 straight and religious man who teaches at a church school and has grown to be a listener rather than a doer. He lets his friends barge into his apartment at all hours. ("Anything goes at Joe's," one character observes.) He screens all his calls, especially those from Erica, the girlfriend he recently broke up with under mysterious circumstances. And when someone's in trouble, he gravitates to them, having learned from his free-spirited mother, Marie (Helene Galek), that if there's something you can do for someone else, you should.
Joe, however, is not so always so hot at setting limits. This isn't always necessarily a cataclysmic flaw; he can cope well enough with his college flame, Myra (Corey Tazmanian), wanting him to father her child (preferably the old-fashioned way), and the promiscuity so often displayed by his friend David (Timothy Dudek), who's still recovering from losing a cherished boyfriend to AIDS. But David's latest squeeze, the underage Enrique (John Triana), has issues with his abusive father that Joe is underequipped to repair with his typical nice-guy tricks, and his church's priest, Father James (Tod Engle), warns Joe of the dangers of getting involved in something so messy.
There's a lot going on here, but not quite too much, at least on paper. But the action does not exactly zip: Marano gives the various disagreements, klatches, and revelations very little to room to breathe, often piling them on top of each other, and directs them at an often glacial pace that makes assimilating them difficult. Though there are few words and ideas wasted, huge swaths of scenes feel like elaborately extended time-killers that provide too little enlightenment or entertainment for their length. (The play is currently in six scenes with no intermission, but could easily - and perhaps more comfortably - support eight scenes with a break.)
Much more problematic is that Marano doesn't arrive at the meat of his message until the next-to-last scene. That's when Joe's crisis of faith really rears its head, and we see how his spirituality has affected many of his most important decisions. This is vital information that is underrepresented elsewhere in the play; our understanding the nature of Joe's religious inclinations would better anchor many of the preceding scenes, and help ensure that suspense about the outcome and its significance is established early and maintained until the very end.
Engle finds plenty of sensitivity and common sense in Father James, and Dudek (in a role apparently inspired by every one that Nathan Lane ever played in a Terrence McNally work) finds neither the adorability within David's annoying tendencies or the necessary outrage when Joe begins letting his belief tear their relationship apart. Everyone else does watchable, if rarely remarkable work, bringing to life a group of slightly quirky characters who are looking for any ways they can find to give their lives lasting meaning.
Confirmation is struggling for much the same thing, in describing the fine line that often exists between bravery and cowardice whether dealing with other people or ourselves. But it only works unequivocally in the last 20 minutes or so, when Marano and Joe drop all the walls between us and the truth. The rest of the time, it seems that Marano wants the absolution without confession - something that, in the theatre as well as in church, never works.