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Exit Cuckoo

Part of the
9th Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray
"I seem to be spending more time in other people's houses than my own," Lisa Ramirez says late in her one-woman show Exit Cuckoo, which is playing at the TBG Theater as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival's new Commercial Division. And though she doubtlessly didn't intend it as such, that statement is the most trenchant observation to be found in this 90-plus-minute exploration of New York's dangerous domestic depths.

After moving here from San Francisco, Ramirez supported herself and her acting habit by working as a nanny. On her outings to parks, protest marches, and everything in between, she started listening to the tales of those like her: women who all but raised children and then were unceremoniously shown the door, mothers from poor countries struggling to make ends meet when jobs in their homelands vanished, even women who painstakingly raised children that grew up to become nanny-addicted themselves.

In extremely lengthy monologues, these nannies deliver diatribes about topics ranging from abortion to desertion to unfeeling capitalism, most of which lack the edge that might identify the speakers as real people rather than scrupulously clean constructs. And while Ramirez has a marvelous speaking voice, velvety, precise, and pliable, her skills as a mimic are considerably less developed. Everyone, whether bearing an Irish brogue or a Latin-American lilt, soon begins to sound and feel alike, making it even more difficult to follow or care about the arc of Ramirez's own development.

Director May Adrales has staged the show simply and effectively, always drawing the eye along the spiritual paths of Ramirez's impersonations. But she's exerted no obvious influence on the shaping of piece: It's as amorphous as it is ineffective at chronicling Ramirez's evolution from ignorant girl to aware woman, the only journey we must believe if the play is to have the emotional impact its subject matter suggests is possible. Adrales, or any director, can only do so much - Ramirez must primarily depend on herself.

To borrow the show's key metaphor: As the mother cuckoo lays eggs in other birds' nests, wreaking havoc on the host family once the shells begin to crack, so too does Ramirez place her fate in others' hands. She's too reliant on other women's stories to allow sufficient time to develop herself as a character, which makes this potentially far-reaching play more myopic and rabble-rousingly shallow than it ought to be.

Ramirez's most significant break from being a walking voice recorder occurs when her mother's serious illness draws her back to California. The scene that results is astonishingly brief one, far shorter than many of the speeches some of the nannies recite. Yet the moments in which the now-humbled Ramirez care for her bedbound mother's every need during an extended hospital stay are more gripping, incisive, and moving than the rest of the play's fraught recollections of anonymous caregivers combined.

It seems that Ramirez already understands that what's true with childcare is true for theatre: Keeping it in the family is usually best. Exit Cuckoo was inspired by the work of Eve Ensler, who also supposedly encouraged Ramirez to dramatize her observations (and is thanked in the program). But with The Vagina Monologues and The Good Body, Ensler demonstrated a rich understanding of how to mine both the personal and the primal when documenting the ever-shifting social landscape of women's America. Ramirez is adroit enough at capturing others' words, but hasn't yet learned how to make their concerns ours as well.

Run Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online, Venue information, and Performance Schedule: 9th Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival

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