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This Day Forward

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 21, 2016

June Gable
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Love and marriage are part of a long game that's getting longer all the time, if Nicky Silver's new play This Day Forward is to be trusted. His new generation-leaping comedy at the Vineyard Theatre examines one of his favorite archetypes, the domineering mother, through perhaps the most unthinkable lens of all: what happens when she suddenly needs the family she's destroyed. When we meet Mrs. Irene Resnick in all her 70-something glory, she's oscillating back and forth between dementia-addled lady in decline and foul-mouthed fire-breather, and it's difficult to say which is her default state these days. Figuring that out, and learning the repercussions, is one of the chief delights of this 2004 chunk of the adventure.

Delight, as we learn, does not come easily to anyone in her sphere—which may be by design. As dissatisfied as she is disoriented, Irene (June Gable) is a writhing mass of uncertainty who isn't going to let such petty obstacles as her offspring stop her. Her daughter, Sheila (Francesca Faridany), wants to pawn her off on her brother, Noah (Michael Crane)? Fine, but it won't happen without a fight. Noah wants to use his much-younger boyfriend, Leo (Andrew Burnap), or his burgeoning TV directing career as an excuse as to why he can't have Mom move with him? It's easy enough for both to be demolished, directly or otherwise. Even the ghosts of Irene's own past, including her 46-year-younger self (played by Holley Fain), won't get in her way, though they may trip her up a bit more than the others.

Not that you'd know it from her lacerating tongue, once it gets going. Take, for instance, her mini-reunion with Sheila:

Irene: "Who is that?"
Noah: "That's Sheila, your daughter."
Irene: "No, no. My daughter's thin. This woman's fat."
Sheila: "I'm Sheila, Mother."
Irene: "When'd you get so fat?"

Or this, about Irene's impromptu trip to the airport:

Noah: "Where did you want to go?"
Irene: "I'm not sure. I was thinking of Acapulco."
Noah: "Mexico?"
Irene: "No, Acapulco, France. Did they move it?"

Or my personal favorite, when Irene meets her son's paramour for the first time:

Noah: "This is my friend, Leo."
Leo: "Friend?"
Noah: "Not now."
Irene: "Is that code?"
Noah: "I'm sorry?"
Irene: "I know that you're gay, Noah. For God's sake, I made you gay. I did it to spite your father."

Joe Tippett, Holley Fain, Andrew Burnap, and Michael Crane
Photo by Carol Rosegg

She's not kidding about that, by the way, and that's the root from which This Day Forward's problems spring. As lively as all these exchanges are with these on-point actors and Mark Brokaw's bull's-eye-hitting direction, and as devastating as they become for their participants and for us as they begin to feed into Irene's recollections of how she got where she ended up, they're the culmination of the struggle, not the beginning of it. All of this takes place in the second of the play's two acts, as everyone tries to clean up from the mess, literal and figurative, we've already seen splurt into being.

That happens in Act I. It doesn't so much show Irene's development into a sulfur-breathing monster as zoom in on one instance of the gorgon already in full bloom. It's set on her wedding night, in 1958, when she married Martin (Crane), and told him, as they're preparing to consummate, that she's not in love with him and never has been. Her true romance, she informs him, is with the grease-monkey Emil (Joe Tippett), who's the self-made man the to-the-manor born Martin is not, and who, wouldn't you know it, is on his way to their honeymoon hideaway at the St. Regis Hotel right now! Martin had better get out of his way if he knows what's good for him.

Let's just say Martin doesn't know what's good for him, and spends the next several decades paying for that mistake. (It's not much of a spoiler to reveal that he dies well before we would get a chance to see him again.) The scenario isn't entirely laugh-free—Gable appears as an enterprising Polish maid and Burnap as her amorous son, and Faridany peeks in as the woman down the hall who wants to get to sleep—and the lush set (by Allen Moyer), costumes (Kaye Voyce), and lights (David Lander), do a solid, slightly smirking job, of setting up an off-kilter version of an era that's so often paraded as perfect.

But it is all pretty distasteful, and successful at neither generating sympathy for Irene (perish the thought) or setting up a sufficiently intriguing explanation for the horrors that will follow. The point, I suppose, is that love denied will rot away at the soul even if it's replaced with something that's theoretically its equivalent (in this case, domestic respectability), but nothing in Silver's writing suggests that Irene ever had a soul to begin with. She does nothing but play with Martin's affections, pursue his money, and then attempt to pin the blame on him. There's no way we can feel bad about the shell of a human she becomes when she's facing her own mortality, and how she drags all her own children down with her, and because she's not as deliciously despicable as Linda Lavin's Rita in The Lyons, for example, we can't even enjoy the carnage.

All we can do is hold on to what works post-intermission, which is pretty much everything (except for an utterly unnecessary flashback to Noah and Leo's first night together): Gable's performance is a particular paint-peeler, both astringent and lost, at once struggling to make sense of a world imploding (to her) and finding fault with the wreckage, but everyone is good, with a gentle Burnap and Fain, showing his how even Irene could be haunted (if not held back) by lost opportunities, the supporting standouts. But aside from a handful of wisecracks from Gable and a few moments of wistful underplaying from Burnap, Act I is a complete nonstarter, with nasty writing and ugly acting that only sabotage the possibilities on which you'll want to believe Act II thrives.

It does, after all, seem to end just once it's getting going, as Noah, Sheila, and especially Irene are facing a future they're not sure they're going to be able to create, for better or worse. Irene, lost in a misty reverie, is looking in every direction trying to find herself, and coming up empty, even as her same vitiated personal is ripping to shreds those closest to her. What the resolution to this could be, I have no idea, but I'd love to find out. Alas, that's not in the cards, as with This Day Forward, Silver is far too interested in looking backward.

This Day Forward
Through December 18
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street between Union Square East and Irving Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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