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Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

I Saw My Neighbor on the Train and I Didn't Even Smile
Berkshire Theatre Group/New Neighborhood

Also see Fred's reviews of Paradise Blue and A Little More Alive


Ariana Venturi and Adam Langdon
Berkshire Theatre Group and New Neighborhood come together to present a superlative and darkly humorous world premiere presentation of I Saw My Neighbor on the Train and I Didn't Even Smile at the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, through August 15. Ariana Venturi's wondrous performance as Sadie, combining detail, timing, and realization of character, sets an elevated bar. The entire production is a distinctive winner, as it realizes the potential of Suzanne Heathcote's revelatory scripting.

It is frigid during wintertime in the Midwest and the audience benefits from Paul Whitaker's scenic and lighting design at the outset which includes a lovely, simulated snowflake effect. Projections designer Nicholas Hussong might also have been involved with the enhancing visual. Jamie (Andrew Rothenberg) is about to marry, once again, and his prospective wife does not take well to Jamie's 15-year-old daughter Sadie. Sadie had been living in California with her own mother but, due to a scandal of sorts, was been sent Jamie's way; now he tries to push her upon his sister Rebecca (Keira Naughton), a 40-year-old woman beset with her own set of problems. The first of many short scenes finds Jamie trying to convince Rebecca that she should take on responsibility for Sadie so he will be spared that difficulty. Rebecca tries to refuse, but that doesn't hold sway and Sadie will soon make her stage entrance.

Rebecca has serious problems: she longs for her precious dog, which passed away a year ago; she does not have, to understate, a prolific love life. Sadie eventually teaches her, utilizing a smart phone, how to get a date with a man. Despite many sessions with her therapist, Rebecca remains alone and lonely and unhappy. Her mother Daphne (Linda Gehringer) likes electronic cigarettes and booze. Blunt and unsparing with her opinions, Daphne has snappy words for her daughter and granddaughter.

Ariana Venturi perfectly nails Sadie's character. Dressed by costumer Jessica Ford in a revealing getup which is totally unsuitable for chilled weather days, she is less than elated to find herself in the Midwest for at least a couple of weeks. It is no surprise that she eventually comes down with pneumonia. She is also brainy and works on a math project with geeky yet appealing Eric (impressive Adam Langdon), who has tight, curly dark hair and at first entrance wears the goofiest looking hat.

There's a delicious scene in which Sadie gleefully mentors and then actualizes, online, a prospective rendezvous with a man—for Rebecca. Steve (Adam O'Byrne), the date, arrives well into this play and comes to visit Rebecca. Instead, he finds an already coughing Sadie alone on a couch having her fill of marijuana. Within moments, he, too, indulges—first with the pipe and then with the teenaged girl.

Directing the proceedings is Jackson Gay. She helmed These Paper Bullets, a fresh musical, in 2014, at Yale Rep. That experience served as catalyst to the formation of the traveling theater group called New Neighborhood. Gay and four of the actors in I Saw My Mother are with that evolving company. Gay coaxes a fast-paced, never-a-dull-moment hour and forty minute performance. While there are at least a dozen vignettes and many quick interludes, the show moves with grace and fluency, including shifts from a diner to a kitchen to a car to a living room and so on.

The level of performance across the board and on these boards, within the intimate Unicorn, is universally high. The quality is such that any student of acting would probably benefit by watching and absorbing. Rebecca is at the center of a dysfunctional extended family. The role is not an easy one since Rebecca is almost perpetually distraught. Still, the talented Naughton gains sympathy for her.

Venturi gets to the core of this 15-year-old Sadie who is sexually adventurous, furious with the turns her life has taken, and also very, very bright. The actress perfectly captures that (deadened) look of the adolescent who seems completely distracted, wishing she were anywhere but in this town at this particular time. Sadie does come alive from time to time—with, for example, Eric, when the two are working on math. Additionally, Venturi must be completely comfortable with her body—essential for an actor playing this role.

Linda Gehringer is adroit as she plays the tough talking Daphne and locates, in the end, her softer side. Andrew Rothenberg's portrayal of Jamie is convincing. Ryan Kattner composed the play's music and Daniel O'Connell is at the piano.

You could say that New Neighborhood is bringing a play about a neighborhood, loosely defined, to the Berkshires. Kate Maguire, the prime moving Artistic Director of BTG (where Keira Naughton has performed and directed previously) was pivotal is making the production happen. It is, as a composite, splendid theater and serves notice to watch for the next New Neighborhood show.

I Saw My Neighbor on the Train and I Didn't Even Smile continues at the Unicorn Theatre as part of Berkshire Theatre Group's summer season through August 15th, 2015, at the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. For tickets, call (413) 997-4444 or visit www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.


Photo: Michelle McGrady

- Fred Sokol



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