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Almost Home

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Joe Lisi, Jonny Orsini, and Karen Ziemba
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Two generations of men learn the hard way that there's no coming home again after war in Almost Home, the new play by Walter Anderson that just opened at the Acorn Theatre. Even if you survive endless torrents of gunfire, torture, and emotional distress, Anderson points out time and time again, there are always more battles to fight, and they're frequently tougher than the ones that involve real blood. Unfortunately, the play could use a bit more blood of its own.

The underlying idea is sound, though. Harry Barnett (Joe Lisi) served in World War II, and saw and did things that even 20 years later, he's unable to talk about or escape from any other way than through drinking. But his long-secret shame comes bubbling again to the surface when his own son, Johnny (Jonny Orsini), returns to his childhood home in the Bronx from a tour with the marines in Vietnam. Johnny, too, is not the same man who left, and is reluctant to reveal the details of why. All he'll tell dad and mom Grace (Karen Ziemba) is that his future plans include passing on a promotion to drill instructor and instead enrolling in junior college in Fullerton, California.

Getting out is not quite so easy, alas, and this "street kid" is presented with yet a third opportunity: to join the police force. The captain, Nick Pappas (James McCaffrey), is insistent that Johnny will excel as an officer, and that his upbringing and own troubled background (he was a fighter, of more than one sort, before he left for Asia) will make him an asset rather than the liability he's forever considered himself.

True, it's not exactly a bracingly original plot, but the conflicts that arise between family members, between young man and community (and, for that matter, older man and community), and between the future and the past are sufficient stuff of drama. Against the appealingly everyday lower-middle-class kitchen set of Harry Feiner, Almost Home at its modest best when it embraces and explores these concepts and shows how every issue these people are dealing with, however minute, comes back to one of the wars and the havoc it wrought on the hearts and minds of the men who fought them.

But Anderson stumbles more when he gets bogged down in details. The specifics of how and why Harry and Johnny have been rent from the inside out are far less compelling than their attempts to deal with the aftermath of their decisions. Johnny's unusual relationship with his former teacher, Luisa Jones (a warm, misused Brenda Pressley), is never as important as it's built up to be. The scenes surrounding Nick and his deceptively mysterious proposal to Johnny are not rendered especially convincingly as a window into the social structure from which Johnny emerged (though McCaffrey's no-nonsense performance in the part is just right for it). And the resolution of all the tangles in unsatisfying and seemingly over even before it's begun.

Part of the problem is that there's just not enough meat here: It's difficult to develop the psychological and narrative complexities required for a tale as sweeping as Anderson apparently wants in less than 80 minutes of stage time. Michael Parva's direction also does not impose the tight pacing or sense of claustrophobia that might imbue the colliding tensions with greater urgency. And though Ziemba and Lisi are both fine as Grace and Harry, nicely capturing an old-fashioned couple confronting the oncoming wave of cultural upheaval, their pain appears only in fits and starts, rather than as a constant that defines every moment of the couple's marriage; Lisi, especially, does not live in the torment the way Anderson suggests he does.

Orsini, however, does find the needed layers. He movingly portrays Johnny as being wedged between childhood and adulthood, and obligation to others and responsibility to oneself, and shows us how the young man learns what to hold onto and what to let go of. Nervous, even slight, at his first entrance, Orsini's Johnny eventually grows into a person who's confident of his choices and his ability to make them, even if he will never stop being haunted by the actions it's too late to change.

Johnny's story is the affecting heart of the work, as much because of the truths it represents as because of Orsini's fine work. Anderson realizes, and heartily presents, the necessity of sometimes sacrificing yourself for others, abandoning guilt over your failures to guide someone else to success. Corruption of the soul need not be a permanent condition, and there just may be no better tool for proving that than the eternal love and respect between father and son. If not all of the pieces fit together in this particular play at this particular time, Almost Home is almost there.

Almost Home
Through October 12
Running Time: 1 hour 20 minutes with intermission
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge