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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Daniel Everidge, Julia Murney, and Daniel Pearce.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

At first blush, Falling, the new play by Deanna Jent that just opened at the Minetta Lane, would seem to be all about bodies. The ways they move, the ways they don't move, the ways they resist or give into impulses that come from a place too deep to define, the ways they fall apart when they're most needed. But a closer look at Jent's meticulously crafted and intensely moving play, given a sterling production by director Lori Adams, reveals that faces are even more important.

In the opening scene, someone who appears to be a grown man, but whose visage is painted—perhaps "choked" is the better word?—with a beatific innocence the likes of which you rarely encounter on anyone older than two or three. When this towering figure, whom we soon learn is named Josh, tugs the string on a box artfully positioned on a shelf, knocking it over so that the dozen feathers inside spill all over him, his mouth explodes in a pliant grin of unsullied wonderment. Even when he's doing something as mundane as watching TV, everything from his chin to his cheeks to his eyebrows appreciate the activity as though there's never been another.

Or, for another example, consider Tami. Her middle-aged features are as fixed as Josh's are fluid. The skin on her neck stretched so tight from stress that it's as though she's lost all ability to smile, she barrels through her house with a single-minded purpose that registers behind her eyes as exasperation, exhaustion, and apparently even fear. Although she's locked permanently in half-cry, she's obviously unable to give way to complete tears, as though to do so would be to sacrifice the lubrication of her soul—the only thing that keeps her going.

As we meet new characters, we learn every bit as much from studying them. Bill, Tami's contemporary, sporting a full head of curly hair that implies playfulness, while his ostensibly youthful jowls are forever locked at stiff attention. Lisa, the youngest, but who comes across the oldest and the most unforgiving, with severe lines so creasing her skin that they convey unquenchable anger even in repose. Last but not least, Grammy Sue, a senior citizen, who's relaxed into her age so much that she sees into you and through you, but whose tentatively pursed lips suggest an open-mindedness her frequently judgmental words seldom do.

So much is conveyed through a cursory glance at the stage, you might think that there doesn't need to be a solid script to back it up. Yet Jent has provided just that, tossing these five volatile characters into a comfortable cage of a home (rendered for this production with an unflinching eye by John C. Stark) that lets them unleash the best and worst of themselves on each other for 75 emotionally exhilarating—and frequently terrifying—minutes. For Josh is no ordinary man: He's an autistic 18-year-old who's grown so tall and so big that his inability to empathize with others, or cope with the stresses of unexpected blenders and dog barks or even a visit from his grandmother, has caused him to become so violent that everyone's life is quite literally at risk.

Mom and dad Tami (Julia Murney) and Bill (Daniel Pearce) insist they've put Josh (Daniel Everidge) on a waiting list for a group home where he can be cared for properly, but he has yet to be accepted. His sister, Lisa (Jacey Powers), was an early victim of his uncontrollable tantrums, and now ignores him as often as she can and disparages or outright attacks him when she can't. Grammy Sue (Celia Howard), visiting from out of town, hasn't seen Josh in several years, and is stunned to discover that neither her soothing words nor the religion she holds so dear can get through to either him or his parents and help him to be the normal boy they've all dreamed of.

Daniel Everidge, Julia Murney, Daniel Pearce, Jacey Powers, and Celia Howard.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Although Jent and Adams have collaborated on no shortage of harrowing moments, which range from the blithely comic (Josh's unknowing attempts at public masturbation) to the devastating (his all-out attack on every member of his family at once), they let none of them become gratuitous. Instead, they're all vital, intricately positioned stepping stones in this family's path to acceptance of its unusual lot, forcing each of them to gradually focus on what they can and can't do for Josh as well as themselves. Everyone grows because everyone has to—they've all ignored reality long enough, and now must either accept the unpleasant facts in front of them or lose what matters most.

As a result, Falling is a legitimate tear-jerker, a solid now-and-then comedy, a gripping family drama, and even a pungent message play that knows exactly how to avoid going too far. So much about it works so well, in fact, that it seems a shame to have to point out a late-show device that almost cracks its uncompromising nature and devolve into cutesiness; Jent tries too hard to prove a certain point, to explore a facet of the Tami-Josh relationship that is otherwise left unspoken, that she comes dangerously close to jeopardizing all she's accomplished up to that point. She doesn't draw it out any longer than she has to, and eventually pulls back from it to get back on track, but it's a close call.

One crucial thing that helps is Murney's bravura turn as Tami: She projects every ounce of the weight that this situation has thrust upon her, and juggles the love, the outrage, and the despondency Tami feels that she will twist the heart of anyone who's ever watched a loved one languish from an illness. With an ability to turn instantly from fake-happy-go-lucky to brink-of-despair serious, she provides everything needed to imbue Tami with every maternal quality at once. When, near the end of the evening, a certain event inspires her to laugh and cry at the same time, her loss and elation are so total that you'll be transported even if you can't directly relate to what she's experiencing.

Luckily, no actor is a weak link. Everidge is a marvel at conveying the trapped spirit within the empty vessel that is Josh, and balancing the boy with the adult, and is at once as cuddly and as threatening as he needs to be. Pearce's weariness, Powers's bruising bluntness, and Howard's optimistic disappointment could scarcely be improved on.

Much the same is true of Falling itself, which is an unusually fine fusion of writing and talent the travels to few unexpected places and yet shocks you to the core just the same. So honest and wrenching is it, in fact, that while you're lost in the actors' faces, don't be surprised if you fail to notice the tears streaming down your own.

Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane off of 6th Avenue between Bleecker and West 3rd Street
Tickets and current schedule Ticketmaster