Lenny & Lou
Among Washington area theaters, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is known for its bold productions of outrageous, often slightly absurd family comedies. Lenny & Lou, the opening production of Woolly's silver anniversary season, fits neatly into this niche, visceral and outspoken as directed by Tom Prewitt and acted by five performers totally committed to the material.
Playwright Ian Cohen has created a claustrophobic world of two brothers and their mother, tied together by circumstance as well as blood. Echoing the sense of connection among the characters is scenic designer Anne Gibson's backdrop of a New York City subway map, representing the circulatory system of the city; set changes involve stagehands dressed in orange safety vests, and oblique shafts of light (designed by Adam Magazine) suggesting the view in a subway tunnel.
Lenny Feinstein (Howard Shalwitz) works in a bank while trying to succeed as a singer-songwriter, and his younger brother Lou (Michael Russotto) is a staid accountant. Their mother, Fran (the sublime Nancy Robinette), suffers from dementia and places constant demands on their lives, ignoring the long-suffering home health care aide, Sabrina (Erika Rose), who visits each day.
Cohen delineates the loving but combative relationship between the brothers immediately. When Lenny complains about his mother's unreasonable request for him to bring her a bunch of bananas in the middle of the night, Lou empathizes, calling her a selfish bitch, but when Lenny calls his brother by his childhood nickname "Louie," the empathy vanishes and the brothers begin fighting.
Another link in the chain that binds mother to sons is that Fran has always acted in an inappropriate way toward Lenny and Lou - calling one son "lover," for example, and threatening to show her caesarean scar to the other when he talks back to her. Lenny has rebelled by marrying Julie Riggio (Jennifer Mendenhall), who has a taste for violence - sexual and otherwise. Lou, meanwhile, has never been able to maintain a relationship with a woman.
With a situation this fraught, something is going to happen, and shortly it does. Before long, the brothers' lives are a shambles, a situation echoed in the wreckage they leave as they ransack their mother's apartment.
Prewitt keeps the pace rapid, aided throughout by fight choreographer John Gurski. Both probably worked on the staging of an epic (but not explicit) sex scene between Shalwitz and Mendenhall that inspires both laughs and gasps.
Shalwitz is a master of very barely suppressed hysteria, and Russotto is hilarious as the "normal" man faced with a situation he can't control. Robinette can do wonders with just her wide eyes, wounded and flirtatious by turns, and her detached serenity in the midst of madness. Mendenhall's brassiness and Rose's determination to follow the rules add to the total picture.
The complexity of Gibson's set design only becomes apparent as the play moves; its modular pieces create a succession of settings, ultimately revealing the accumulated details of Fran's life. The props collected by Annica Graham do a magnificent job of bringing Fran's grim apartment to life, from precious china figurines to fading photographs of family members no one remembers.
Lenny & Lou, which runs through Sept. 26, is a worthy addition to Woolly Mammoth's gallery of grotesques who may be only a few degrees of sanity away from some of the people in the audience.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company