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The Groundling

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Kendall Rileigh, Jerry Matz, Emily Kratter, and Benjamin Russell
Photo by John Painz

Meet the Malones, Bob and Karen, a couple going through a patch of marital discord. We first encounter them in mid-argument inside the garage of their home on Long Island, a garage that is about to be converted to a theater in Marc Palmieri's astutely conceived and splendidly performed The Groundling now at Axis Theatre.

It seems that Bob (Robert Ierardi), who runs a landscaping business, has written a play that he intends to put on for friends and family in that same garage. He has already hired a director, one professional actress, and a couple of enthusiastic amateur thespians from the neighborhood. As far as he is concerned, this is the real deal. For her part, Karen (Eva Kaminsky) is less than thrilled that her home is about to be invaded by a group of strangers for reasons she deems to be utterly ridiculous and a self-indulgent waste of money.

All of this is a great set-up for what seems to be a comedy about a midlife crisis vanity project. And, indeed, The Groundling has all the markings of a solidly written romantic comedy, with plenty of heart and lots of laughs to go around. Yet, while bearing all of the characteristics of the genre, the 90-minute work veers in unexpected and emotionally moving directions.

We soon learn that Bob is not only a novice playwright, he has decided to write his play—about a couple not unlike the Malones—in rhyming couplets, described by Dodd (Brian Barnhart), the director who usually spends his time doing free Shakespeare in public spaces, as "syllabic, half-Alexandrine, Sesame Street verse."

The description is not an exaggeration, as we learn when the performers start to rehearse. Yet, despite the often quite funny dialog, The Groundling is no sitcom. It is character driven all the way as we grow to know and appreciate everyone. In addition to the Malones and Dodd, there are Karen's dad Frank (Jerry Matz), and the hired actors—Victoria (Kendall Rileigh), the professional who is barely eking out a living ("I went to NYU Tisch. It was a great investment," she says), and Ally (Emily Kratter) and Pete (Benjamin Russell), a pot-smoking sister and brother in their 20s who are nothing if not game.

The plot focuses mainly on the preparations and rehearsals for the one-shot performance, but it is during the down time that we learn about each of the characters so that they become more and more human. The play also has a lot to say about the power of theater to touch hearts and minds, and to give voice to feelings that cannot be expressed in any other way. We may laugh, for instance, when Pete talks about his experience of seeing The Phantom of the Opera three times, but maybe we laugh a little less when we see what it has meant to him.

By the end, we have come to know and care for every one of these characters, and we finally understand why it is that Bob has chosen this particular route to relate the story he was determined to tell. The ending takes us in a surprising direction, but it rings true and gives context to all that has come before. All told, The Groundling is smart, funny, and ultimately quite moving, and it is being performed by a top-notch cast under the direction of the playwright himself. It could not be in better or more loving hands.

The Groundling
Through March 8
Axis Theatre, One Sheridan Square
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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