Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Women's Theater Revives Hansberry's ... Brustein's Window;
Also see Bob's review of The Bells
The time is the early 1960s and the setting is the Brustein apartment and adjoining courtyard in Greenwich Village. The omission of this information in the program contributed to some confusion while viewing the play.
Sidney is a Jewish self-styled intellectual whose entrepreneurial instincts and efforts are doomed by his desire to mesh them with his counter-cultural politics and life style. As the play opens, Sidney has just had to close down an ill-defined "folksong nightclub," but already has assumed control of a sagging weekly neighborhood newspaper. He has done so without the knowledge of his wife Iris, whose frustration with his failed schemes is threatening their marriage. Sidney will soon lead the weekly into further jeopardy by backing a "reform" insurgent politician unworthy of his trust. Sidney and Iris are surrounded by a gallery of friends and relatives whose lives and personas never fail to engage our interest despite the play's excessive length.
Michelle Tattenbaum has directed at a brisk, lively pace (a must for this discursive play), eliciting straightforward, naturalistic performances from a solid cast. Although Katie Atcheson's Iris and Duncan M. Rogers' Sidney are fine in this mode, a more ethnic type Sidney would have been more evocative.
Particularly strong is Robin Marie Thomas as Iris' conservative, mildly (by 1960s standards) bigoted sister, Mavis. Thomas smoothly engages our sympathy as she reveals the unhappiness of her marriage. Also praiseworthy are Roderick Lapid as a homosexual playwright whose personality changes but does not improve with sudden success; Ellen Domingos as Iris' tragic younger sister, Gloria; and Christopher Burris as friend Alton, a black man whose emotions are soured by societal racism.
Hansberry's play crackles with sharp dialogue and involving philosophical debate. Thomas' Mavis gets some of the best lines, such as, "There are no squares. Everyone is his own hipster." Also, the backhanded, inherently bigoted "compliment", which would be more carelessly bruited about 40 years ago than today (and you may substitute another group), "Say what you will about the Jews, they're tough."
Given budgetary constraints, it is only fair to suspend criticism of minimal scenic elements so long as they do not detract from the play. However, in this instance, there is nothing to suggest whether the setting is urban, suburban or rural. In the first scene, I felt the setting might be a small Connecticut town. The dialogue eventually indicates that it is an urban setting (New York or Chicago, it seemed). Yet when the courtyard scene occurs at the top of the second act, I was totally at a loss as to the where and when. At first, I thought that it was a flashback to a morning in the country (the nature sound effects were decidedly unhelpful). The problem is not that the cutout walls, doors and windows are minimal. It is that they are totally generic.
Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun assures her place in the history of the American theatre. This 1959 classic was the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. It also was the first play by any African-American to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window is the only other play that she had completed at the time of her tragic death from cancer at the tender age of 34 in 1965. In fact, it ended its brief Broadway run just two days before her death on January 12, 1965. The play strongly suggests that Hansberry was not a one-shot wonder, and that her early death was a great loss to the American theatre.
Although it meanders shapelessly from one scene too many to another at the finish, Brustein is a charming and involving period piece which lovingly gives flesh to an assortment of largely politically and culturally aware young adults in 1960s Greenwich Village.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window continues performances through April 10, 2005 (Thurs & Sat at 8 pm/ Sun at 2 pm) at the Women's Theatre Company in residence at the YM-YWHA of North Jersey, One Pike Drive, Wayne, NJ 07470; Box Office: 973-316-3033; online www.womenstheatercompany.org.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window by Lorraine Hansberry; directed by Michelle Tattenbaum.
Montclair's Luna Stage, a beautiful home for incurably optimistic theatre professionals who bravely produce mostly new plays, is home to the "professional world premiere" of a new overly antic play, A Beautiful Home for the Incurable by Ian Walker. There are interesting and original elements here that the playwright should continue to develop. However, both in writing and production, there is an uncertainty of tone which must be overcome for the play to fully succeed.
Bunny is an agoraphobic who is fearful of even stepping out onto the balcony of his New York City apartment. Having inherited almost one million dollars upon the death of his mother, Bunny has ceased to ever go out. In short order, Bunny is joined in his apartment by the dysfunctional friends with whom he has formed an informal support group. Nick (apraxia) and Lucy (narcolepsy) suffer from neurological disorders, as does a new group member, Madilyn (amnesia). The tone is that of light comedy with the possibility of some romance. Before the end of the first scene, the support group learns that a swindler has stolen Bunny's identity, and along with it most of his inheritance. Madilyn, more purposeful and resourceful, than the others sets out to find the swindler. By now, the viewer should be, but is not, aware that a comedy-thriller is at hand.
Motivated by the knowledge that Buddy and his cohorts are attempting to track him down, the swindler, Temple, arrives at the apartment. After his arrival, act two cleverly opens with the continuation of a scene during which Bernard threatens the dysfunctional four. It is by far the most compelling scene in the play. Although there is still humor here, there are actually effective scary moments which include a detailed discussion of acts of computer hacking and identity theft, and Temple's plans to avoid detection. It is laid on thick and fast, and would likely not survive close scrutiny, but it is scary and engrossing.
Still, overall, the comic tone is too broad and loose. There should be more substance to Bunny and his group so that we can be more concerned for them. It is awfully late before there is any sense of menace, and then it is dissipated too early. When the evil Bernard subdues Madilyn, the moment is inappropriately played for comedy. And yet, there is certainly promise here.
An especially strong ensemble is at work in this production. Erik Kever Ryle is engaging and an expert physical comedian as he desperately seeks to retain the safety of his apartment. David Sitler has an appropriately nasty edge as Nick. Dawn Luebbe is a very funny lunatic of a Lucy and yet exudes much charm. Anne Connolly is a most likeable, determined and purposeful Madilyn. Brian Townes' Temple is an effective villain who captures all the villainy available to him.
There is an uncredited hyper-realistic set with kitchen appliances. Paul Whelihan's broad and loose direction seems intentional and in keeping with the loose comedic tone of the script. Yet, at times, it feels as if author Ian Walker and Whelihan have produced a play that is best when it is different in tone from the broad comedy which Walker seems to have envisioned. Viscerally potent, the menace, which is injected too briefly into play, provides more interest than anything surrounding it.
A Beautiful Home for the Incurable continues performances through April 10 (Thurs 7:30 pm/Fri & Sat 8 pm/ Sun 2 pm) at Luna Stage, 695 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair, NJ 07042; box office: 973-744-3309; online www.lunastage.org.
A Beautiful Home for the Incurable by Ian Walker; directed by Paul Whelihan.