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Cornelia Street

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 14, 2023

Norbert Leo Butz, Kevyn Morrow, Ben Rosenfield,
Mary Beth Peil, Lena Pepe, Esteban Andres Cruz,
and George Abud

Photo by Ahron R. Foster
Sometimes it happens that you attend a play or musical and find that it suffers from a rickety script or uninspired score. Still, if you are lucky, there will be something about it that draws you in. Maybe the actors have managed to create compelling characters from sketchily drawn ones. Or the director has come up with an intriguing and original approach. Or one or two songs rise above the rest. Sadly, the gods of theatre have failed to bestow any of these blessings on Cornelia Street, a head-scratcher of a musical that is being presented by the Atlantic Theater Company at Atlantic Stage 2.

That there are scant pleasures to be found here is surprising, given the credentials of those who are involved. The show boasts a script by Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) and songs by Mark Eitzel of the indie rock band American Music Club. The director is Neil Pepe, who helmed and was nominated for a Tony for the 2022 revival of American Buffalo. And the cast includes two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz, New York theatre stalwart Mary Beth Peil, and George Abud, last seen on Broadway in the multiple Tony-winning The Band's Visit.

Yet for all this talent on hand, it is difficult to grasp what the creative team had in mind in this tale about the denizens of a small café (realistically designed by Scott Pask) on the titular Cornelia Street in New York City's West Village. The owner, Marty (Kevyn Morrow), barely makes ends meet and would like to sell and get out, while its middle-aged chef, Jacob (Butz), has head-in-the-clouds ideas about turning the place into a hot spot. The play itself centers on Jacob's dreams, his struggles to be a supportive father to his teenage daughter Patti (Lena Pepe), the sudden appearance of his older stepdaughter Misty (Gizel Jiménez), and an unfortunate entanglement with the neighborhood drug dealer William (Abud).

But the plot itself is rather negligible, and the whole thing seems to be set up to serve as a way for us to spend time with the café's quirky clientele, who pop in and out in the manner of the assorted characters of such plays as The Iceman Cometh or The Hot l Baltimore. Sarah (Peil) floats around like an aging hippie and self-declared seer, prophesying futures and sighing about her lovers. John (Ben Rosenfield), a 20-something computer scientist who comes in every day for lunch, presents as if his character were based on Data, the android crew member in "Star Trek: The Next Generation." And Abud as William, the taxi driver/drug dealer, throws himself around as if he were simultaneously everyone's friend and everyone's mortal enemy. With so little to connect the characters to one another, it's all like improv night at Drunk Shakespeare, but without the Shakespeare.

As for the music, I will say that I was quite taken with John Clancy's orchestrations for the band, including parts for a tuba and a harp. But Eitzel's score itself does little to help illuminate the story. Short songs all around, with pretty much everything written in metronome-strict 4/4 time, coupled with the simplest of lyrics and basic rhyme schemes. Take, for example, Jacob's advice to his daughter: "The rats are killing the rat race/So everyone's wearing a rat face/Don't let 'em put you in last place."

At this point, the best suggestion I can come up with is that you find another place to hang out on Cornelia Street. There are several nice restaurants there, and maybe Taylor Swift's song of the same name as the show's title will be playing in the background.

Cornelia Street
Through March 5, 2023
Atlantic Theater Company
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: