Tag Archives: Susan Stein

Trying an Offramp on the Highway to Prison

Review: Pipeline by Three Bone Theatre

By Perry Tannenbaum

Pipeline Cast 

One of 25 winners of the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Grant” last year, playwright Dominique Morisseau has begun, somewhat belatedly, a stealth invasion of the Queen City. How stealthy? UNC Charlotte and Three Bone Theatre, the first two outfits to present Morisseau works here, both latched onto the same acclaimed Detroit ‘67 for productions that would have opened a little more than a month apart.

That mutual unawareness was mercifully cleared up. Instead of two competing productions of the same 2013 script, we’re introduced to Morisseau by Three Bone with a newer work, Pipeline, that premiered at Lincoln Center two summers ago. ’67 matriculates on September 27 at the Robinson Hall Black Box.

Nya2

With a detached black dad checking his smartphone instead of making quality time for his teen-aged son, Pipeline feels 50 years more contemporary than Detroit must be. Yet the tide that high school English teacher Nya desperately resists, the progression of young black men’s lives from school to prison, comes at her with the lethal force of an eternal verity. Like mythic Greek royals seeking to avoid a sure fate pronounced by a Delphic oracle, Nya and her ex-husband Xavier have sent their son Omari off to a private boarding school to avoid the inner-city trail to incarceration.

It isn’t working. Although he isn’t dealing drugs, isn’t in a gang, and has a girlfriend who values him, Omari is volatile. In a classroom discussion of Richard Wright’s Native Son, the teacher has zeroed in on him to explain why Bigger Thomas explodes with such anger and violence – presumably because he, as the black kid the class, was best qualified to understand.

Omari

The questioning escalated in a confrontation and then a physical action from Omari that seems open to dispute. Push, shove, assault, or a simple attempt to leave the room? Whatever happened – we never see the video that went viral – Omari not only faces possible expulsion but the teacher might press charges. Jail may already be on the horizon.

Nobody takes this unexpected defeat harder than Nya. She hasn’t merely been fighting against this tide of imprisonment and doom in her family. Every day in her classroom, she fights the good fight with wave after wave of young men, period after period, year after year. Teaching Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” written in 1959, Nya doesn’t merely wish her students to understand what the dropout pool players are saying in their semi-literate three-word sentences, she wants them to avoid living it.

So as Nya melts down in front of her students, Omari’s fate and her defeat acquire an Arthur Miller All My Sons moral weight, for she is angered and tinged with guilt at the same time. She is dangerous and out of control as she barges into Jasmine’s dorm room, demanding to know where her son has run off to.

Here is probably the best entry point into Morisseau’s subtext, for Nya gets a free pass on losing her cool and overstepping where Omari doesn’t. Just don’t get so caught up in Nya’s trespasses that you sleep on those of her colleague, Laurie, a white teacher. My first impulses were to see her as an empathizing sounding board for Nya’s anguished feelings and, together with security guard Dun, as a co-worker who underscores the sense of working in a terrifying, corrupting jungle teeming with at-risk youth.

Nya&Omari_2

Ah, but keep your eye on what happens after Laurie snaps, striking one of her students – to break up a fight! Criticism gets hurled at Laurie by Nya and Dun, and surely there will be consequences from New York City school administration. But nobody onstage, not even Nya, believes that Laurie might be fired (in effect, expelled) and nobody, including me, entertains the notion that she might be brought up on assault charges.

These assumptions are the exact opposite of what we take for granted as applying to the Omaris, the Trayvons, and their black brethren striving to reach adulthood in America without being jailed or shot down in cold blood. We’ve all been numbed by this norm that is so hard-wired into American life.

While scene changes at Duke Energy Theater are a bit plodding in this Three Bone production, Ryan Maloney’s set design takes us where we need to go, and his projections add liveliness to the action, especially the poetry demo. Directing this meaty, turbulent, and layered script, Sidney Horton keeps the heat at about medium-high, so the playwright’s light shines through and we don’t suffer exhaustion.

And my goodness, the high-grade performances we get from LeShea Nicole as Nya and Susan Stein as Laurie make Horton look like the genius. Nicole discards all the irony we’ve seen from her in the past and gives us an earnestness and a heart-on-my-sleeve openness that marks an artistic breakthrough. When Nya teaches the last sentence of the Brooks poem, “We Die soon,” we get the full impact of what she feels is at stake.

Yet Nicole doesn’t get the luxury of delivering full-bore anger and toughness all the time as Stein does. Nya has a tender maternal side that peeps through even in the confrontation with Jasmine, Omari’s girlfriend. Stein offers us the sort of scrappy New Yorker whom I remember seeing and hearing so often when I was growing up. Yeah, her Laurie is back on the job after having her face put back together, but don’t you dare pity her.

Nya&Omari_1

All of Nya’s fire and fury would be for naught if Morisseau hadn’t endowed Omari with enough complexity, strength and nuance for her to care about. Deandre Sanders takes a beautiful approach, playing Omari as a troubled young man rather than an immature teen. Nor does Sanders mute Omari’s big blind spot, his perpetually seething anger toward his dad. Omari’s scenes with Jasmine, his mom, and his dad are all multifaceted, Sanders projecting a manly grace and style that only partly veil the powder keg. Omari and his dad arguably draw the most noteworthy of Davita Galloway’s costume designs. That never hurts.

Slick, cold, and distant as he may be, Graham Williams as Xavier lets us know with only a trace of bitterness that he has taken the bullet for the breakup of his marriage to Nya. She slammed the door on him, now wants him back, and all this while has been peddling the myth that he abandoned his family – stoking Omari’s anger and partiality with the deception. So the guilt that afflicts Nya is not at all numinous.

Morisseau and Horton don’t neglect the smallest roles. While somewhat annoying in his pursuit of Nya, Marcus Fitzpatrick as Dun ably makes his point that the English teacher might be doing some income group profiling in undervaluing the school security guard. Meanwhile Alexis Jones gets to spray Jasmine with a few immature traits, letting us know there are some smarts mixed in with the coed’s insecurities and, in her showdown with Nya, that there is true worth behind her petulance.

Resettling in the Rubble

Review:   By the Water

By Perry Tannenbaum

IMG_3340

Compared with Cape Hatteras, Wilmington, or Charleston here in the Carolinas, the borough of Staten Island up in New York City hasn’t historically been known as a punching bag for hurricanes. Until late 2012, when Hurricane Sandy battered three NYC boroughs, Staten Island was hardly in the conversation when compared even with nearby Long Island. Zeroing in on the impact of Sandy on a Staten Island family and community, Sharyn Rothstein’s By the Water not only changes the conversation, it also fiddles with history.

Taking in Ryan Maloney’s storm-ravaged set design at Duke Power Theater, with its waist-high waterline, you would likely expect Rothstein’s drama to be about the folly of resettling near a hurricane-prone shore. Or we might assume we’ll encounter the innocent victims of unscrupulous real estate developers, or come face-to-face with the new New York calculus of climate change. None of the working-class folk in this Three Bone Theatre production, smartly directed by Ron Law, seems capable – or sufficiently woke – to address any of these subjects.IMG_3234

As a result, the topicality of By the Water becomes rather shrouded in a mist of Murphy family grudges and disputes, further distanced from pressing issues that might concern us by the neighboring Carter family’s involvement. The Murphys seem as broken, fallible, and struggling as the Lomans were in Death of a Salesman, and the heads of this devastated household, Marty and Mary, have a fairly similar relationship.

For Marty, it’s axiomatic that he should rebuild and restart. To his eldest son, Sal, it’s obvious that his dad should move to higher, safer ground – and way past time that his mom stop blindly supporting whatever Dad says, especially after all his past misjudgments and misdeeds. Philip and Andrea Carter, the Murphys’ longtime friends and neighbors, have decided that they wish to accept a government buyout and move to Montclair, New Jersey.

But this isn’t a laissez-faire situation, where the Murphys and the Carters are free to do whatever they wish, no harm done. The government’s offer to the Carters and other survivors in the neighborhood will be withdrawn unless 80% of the community decides to sign on. Marty is fervid enough about his cause to go out picketing against the buyout.

A stretch at a hotel and returning to a home that boasts a few sticks of furniture, a hardy fridge, and the better part of one wall is starting to fray Mary’s unquestioning loyalty to her husband. The younger son, Brian, is returning home after a stretch of own – in prison as a result of his past drug addiction. He sides with his dad, seemingly to keep his favor, but his endorsement is tainted by his rap sheet, and he’s actually more intent on regaining the affections of the Carters’ daughter, Emily. Her parents, of course, know all about him, so they don’t approve.

Could work in Brian’s favor, right? He and Emily are both City kids. Minds of their own.

IMG_3248

A corner of the stage is set aside for the wee wharf where Brian and Emily rendezvous, providing a respite from the family quarreling and the neighborhood politics, which grew a little repetitious during the 91-minute performance on opening night. More substance in the debate would have dispelled the tedium. It might have been worth pondering what government should and shouldn’t subsidize on these fragile wetlands. And a more eloquent Marty might voice the notion that, given the historical infrequency of tropical storms and hurricanes hitting Staten Island, it’s not such a stupid plan to live out the 20-30 remaining years of your life in the house your father built rather than transplanting to Montclair.

While Rothstein does disappoint me on topicality, and in giving us any sense that she’s intensively researched the Tri-State housing market or Marty’s prospects for homeowner’s insurance, there are times when she brings us vividly into the moment. Despite skirting the basic survivalist questions of home life without a roof, the playwright etches her characters with finely judged individuality and gives us a nuanced feel for the Murphys’ family dynamics.

Law and his cast are definitely on Rothstein’s wavelength, and the only major mistake they make is in overestimating the Duke’s acoustics. As the inimitable Tania Kelly demonstrated last year in Three Bone’s Every Brilliant Thing, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re being heard up in the balcony when people are actually having problems in the second row.

While you might not catch the ends of all of Marty’s sentences, Thom Tonetti delivers all of the outsized personality and bossiness that fosters Mary’s adoration and submission. We are definitely dealing with a force that can sway community sentiment when we encounter Tonetti, and we are not surprised to learn that Marty is capable of taking audacious and catastrophic risks. Physically, Susan Stein projects the frailty that perfectly fits Mary but with a salty New York accent that constantly reminds us of the street savvy and toughness that lurk within. There’s a tenseness and pallor to Stein as well, hinting that Mary has reached the end of her tether.IMG_3301

Law would have been safer casting an older actor to get the right look for Sal, the elder son, but there’s no doubt that Tommy Prudenti captures his straight-arrow essence in his Charlotte debut. Sal is a living white-collar rebuke of his father’s values, yet at key moments, Prudenti convinces us that he still craves Dad’s love. Tim Hager’s portrait of Brian adds another black sheep to his gallery, and if you saw his Franz in Three Bone’s Appropriate last summer, you won’t be surprised that he’s as lovable a reprobate up in the New York City wetlands as he was down on the bayou.

The accent is different, but this bad boy remains a magnet for one unattached lady who may be ready to rekindle an old pre-prison flame. I think you’ll like the sassy flavor that Sonia J. Rosales brings to Emily in her Charlotte debut. She’s certainly more liberated than the two moms we see here.

It’s slightly surprising to see Law pairing Lillie Oden with Joe Copley as the Carters, but they work beautifully together. Opposed to the Murphys’ plans, there’s a clear gender difference in how their oppositions play out. Like Mary, Oden as Andrea is more apt to be conciliatory, and like Marty, Copley as Philip inevitably becomes enraged and bellicose. You get the idea that Rothstein believes that the world would be so much more peaceful and sensible if women were in charge. But where would her drama be without all her guys?

 

People Messing With Other People Keep “The Luckiest People” Lively

Review: The Luckiest People

By Perry Tannenbaum

“Grow old along with me, The best is yet to be,” Rabbi Ben Ezra famously says in a Robert Browning poem, but tragic heroes King Lear and Willy Loman would probably have sided with my mom. She keeps telling me: “Young is better.” At Hadley Theatre, tucked away on the Queens University campus, playwright Meridith Friedman significantly compounds the controversy in The Luckiest People. In this Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production directed by Sidney Horton, Friedman’s charming comedy-drama revolves around Oscar Hoffman, who is stranded by the death of his beloved wife, Dorothy, in a California assisted-living community, deeply lonely with myriad aches, pains, and complaints.

Most of these complaints, some fairly hilarious, are poured into his son Richard’s ears – plus the insinuation that he was responsible for letting his mom die. Oscar’s other child, Laura, has managed to distance herself from the fray, living in Shanghai and delaying her arrival until the funeral because she couldn’t stand to face her mom during her final hours.

So yes, Friedman sometimes seems to hint that caring for your parents as they journey toward their final transition might be at least as agonizing as experiencing it. That impression, however, is undercut by another perspective.

Layered onto all the love-hate friction between Oscar and his children is Richard’s relationship with his partner David. Richard and David are close to adopting a son when Oscar, ignorant of these plans, decides that the time has come for him to leave his place and move in with his son.

One transitioning child is enough for Richard and David to handle in their household, but David watches as Richard uses his father’s needs – and the possibility of his moving in – as excuses to drag his feet on the adoption. Although he himself becomes the target of Oscar’s testiness, David also sees that Richard is more than a little hypertense in dealing with Dad’s needs, complaints, and accusations. Oscar and Richard were born and raised as New York Jews while David is a comparatively mellow California Christian, apparently unacquainted with weaponized guilt.

Because Laura must return to Shanghai, Friedman compresses the bulk of her action into just a few days. That’s long enough for David – and us – to get the notion that Richard and Laura aren’t suffering so much because their dad is really tormenting them. They’re suffering because neither of them is really a grownup. Maybe Richard isn’t ready for parenthood after all.

Leaning over to that point of view can happen if we forget what a handful Oscar can be. Or we can catch ourselves laying the blame on Oscar for his children’s stunted growth. It’s complicated. Fully drawn dramatic families usually are.

Clearly reveling in the height of the Hadley, where Actor’s Theatre has recently inked a deal to be Queens U’s resident theatre for the next five years, executive director Chip Decker has put on his scenic designer hat and built two adjoining rooms at different levels. One of them is Oscar’s modest living room and the other, tellingly larger, is Robert’s kitchen. Of course there’s room for everybody!

Horton has a great sense for how Friedman’s comedy and drama should mix and how the Hoffman family’s humor and anger should suddenly erupt – and there’s a pretty wonderful cast at his command. In this rolling world premiere, Dennis Delamar gets the chance to reprise and further develop his Oscar, a role he originated in staged readings at the NuVoices Festival of 2016. Stooped over, stubborn, selfish, whip smart, and half blind, he is a thorny person to deal with. He’s still holding a grudge over transplanting from Great Neck, New York, to sunny California; yet late in life, Delamar shows us very naturally that Oscar still has possibilities for personal growth.

On the other hand, we might resist the notion that the perpetually tentative or exasperated Richard will ever loosen up, for until the final scene, in a nuanced performance seething with hidden fire, Tim Ross keeps him looking stressed or depressed. Some of that anger even carries over from his scenes with his father and his lover to his scattered tête-à-têtes with his wayward sister. Huddled with little Laura, Ross makes sure we also see an older, wiser brother, with glints of maturity, responsibility, and an aptitude for parenting.

Eventually, both Oscar and Richard emerge as our protagonists. When that happens, we’re likely to realize that Laura and David have both been part of the alchemy. Susan Stein makes an auspicious Charlotte debut as Laura, obviously the loosey-goosey sib from the moment she first enters. Laura is the one who has taken all the leaps into matrimony, motherhood, and now infidelity that Richard is wary of, and Stein makes her self-justifying zingers nearly as memorable as those Oscar aims at his caregivers and over-the-hill neighbors.

All of Friedman’s illuminating edifice probably wouldn’t have collapsed if she had made David a little less perfect, but Scott A. Miller, one of our best, finds a way to texturize him. Mostly, we empathize with David because we see how hurt he is by Oscar’s slights and Richard’s failures to commit, smiling weakly yet persevering with firm resolve. He also has a tête-à-tête or two with Laura, but you can count on Miller to make these more relaxed, conspiratorial, and gossipy.

My only disappointment on opening night was the size of the crowd. The place on Radcliffe Avenue can be a little difficult to find the first time out, but a show this warm and rich is definitely worth the trouble. These are, as the relevant song says, “people who need people,” and you’ll likely never see Delamar or Ross in better form than at the Hadley in The Luckiest People.