Also see Kevin's review of Proof
When you see Deborah Zoe Laufer’s The Gulf of Westchester, you'll first be in awe of its visual/audio kaleidescope. Richard Crowell’s set design is eye catching: a huge sports bar of a living room decked out with two wide screen television sets, a bigger screen resembling a window, a comfortable couch, two art deco chairs, and pine cone furniture sets filled with sports trophies, soda, and beer.
The flavor in your ear during pre-show and intermission is Barry Manilow's greatest hits provided by Sound Designer Matt Kelly. Kelly cranks out masterpieces such as "Mandy," "Even Now" and the "American Bandstand" theme. Crowell, a Marlins season ticket holder, must have had a field day when the concept was sent to him, while Kelly prides himself as a musical eclectic.
Look beyond those two startling aspects, and Laufer’s Westchester is filled with timely events. This marks the Juilliard graduate’s second world premiere at Florida Stage in a year and a half. The first, The Last Schwartz, focused on a family in need of some deep therapy. The Gulf of Westchester focuses on a circle of friends who are quite beyond therapy. The play is ripe with issues that make people think, but the story gets lost without its resonance.
The time is April 2003 in suburban New York. The U.S. is at war, trying to find out if Iraq is holding arms to cripple the world and Anthrax is running rampant. Vicki (Kim Ostrenko) has Saturday night gatherings in which her childhood friends come over to either play games or watch them. Assisting is Vicki’s sidekick Phoebe (Blair Sams), and Vicki’s husband Roger (Stephen G. Anthony) pumps up the volume on the wide screens between ESPN and CNN (the former for the scores on the games, the latter for the Homeland Security warnings).
Vicki and Roger are overly patriotic; they seal their windows with duct tape and foil, sanitize their mail with equipment from the postal service, and throw out food not American made (i.e. French fries). Vicki even takes Phoebe to task for not having her flag up in her driveway. Phoebe fibs, saying that her flag was blown into the mud by the wind.
Also coming to the soiree is Roger’s yes-man Dennis (Ian Hersey) and his new girlfriend Joan (Andrea Cirie). Dennis is Sancho to Roger’s Don Quixote, as they were teammates on the same wrestling squad in high school. Dennis is now an accountant while Roger is an advertising executive, but Roger got the upper hand with the nuclear family setting. He proves this in a wrestling match for old times. Joan, being new to the group, is against young people being sent off to battle for a lost cause. Her son is over there now. Roger accuses her of being un-American while Dennis sits idly by in cowardice. Phoebe is jealous of Joan because of Dennis’ involvement outside the group when she is single and available.
The culmination of this night is the arrival of the group’s childhood hero, Sam (Tom Wahl). Sam and Roger both went off to serve in the Gulf War of 1992. Roger completed his tour of duty, while Sam went missing for 11 years. He calls Roger asking for a favor. When Sam finally enters, the group is faced with a harsh reality that no one is ready to confront.
Laufer makes a good statement by focusing this play around a group of friends who go through their everyday routine without struggle. The Gulf of Westchester also comes at a time when we are still faced with overseas conflicts, finishing some business over a 13 year span. Laufer has an interesting concept, but the execution is badly done.
Her characters are not fully developed. Vicki and Roger play WASPs on the surface, but there is no depth as to why they are this way. Joan has issues with her son fighting, but they are never hashed out, while Dennis puts in a few one liners with no zing.
There is a scene between Phoebe and Sam in which she confronts him about being gone so long without contact (they were childhood sweethearts). Although the plot circles around knowing who our true friends are, the predictable conclusion will also have audiences scratching their heads.
The players make the best out of the material given to them. Stephen Anthony is a master showman as Roger. Being boisterous as a typical sports nut, Anthony struts around like a red rooster giving Roger a “master of his domain” feel. Helping along is costume designer Suzette Pare providing Anthony with different sports jerseys which give Roger panache.
Kim Ostrenko (channeling Shelley Long in Cheers) provides Vicki with a happy attitude on Zoloft. Even when challenged or questioned by Phoebe, Ostrenko stands tall in her belief that everything is fine with the world when it really isn’t. Andrea Cirie and Ian Hersey are just supportive fodder as Joan and Dennis. Cirie gives Joan spunk to stand up to Roger’s Neanderthal values, while Hersey provides some good comic relief. Other than that, their characters aren’t memorable.
The players who make the most out of this material are Tom Wahl and Blair Sams. Wahl gives a convincing turn as Sam, a man beyond spent as a war veteran who needs assistance for his family and himself. Wahl puts on a paleface front as we sympathize with his situation. Sams’ portrayal proves Phoebe is the only one who makes changes in her life. Sams makes sure that we see Phoebe turn from naïve to confident in two hours.
Producing Director Louis Tyrell depends on his resident design staff to bring the goods. Suzanne Jones’ lighting complements Crowell’s game den with a bigger screen reflection while Kelly’s sound choice of Manilow gives off that tranquil afternoon delight. Most noteworthy, besides Crowell’s massive set, are the video segments provided by Robert Goodrich. Although distracting at times during dialogue, Goodrich’s design smacks us in the head telling audiences to open their eyes to the world around them.
Louis Tyrell founded Florida Stage for the purpose of showcasing new work. He has continued to spearhead the campaign for almost 20 years now. Tyrell and Laufer have a good idea on their hands with The Gulf of Westchester. This play couldn’t have come at a better or worse time, depending on how we look at it. But all things considered, Laufer is going to have to nurture this play before it's given another life. As Diane Chambers might say, “Rewrites, anyone?”
The Gulf of Westchester will conclude the season on June 13th at Florida Stage, 262 S. Ocean Boulevard in Manalapan. For tickets, please call the box office at (561) 585-3433 or outside of Palm Beach County, (800) 514-3837. You can also buy tickets online at www.floridastage.org.
FLORIDA STAGE - The Gulf of Westchester
Cast: Kim Ostrenko, Blair Sams,
Production Stage Manager: James Danford
Scenic Design: Richard Crowell
Directed by Louis Tyrell
-- Kevin Johnson