By Bruce Graham
Directed by Constance Geappo
INTAR / 42nd Streey, Theatre row (Bet. 9th & 10th) / (212) 279-4200

Reviewed by David Spencer

Sometimes the calls a critic gets from press agents handling smaller shows can proliferate like solicitation calls from credit card companies. In most cases, they duplicate information the critic already has, from hard copy press releases sent via snail-mail; and as I believe I’ve written before, you just have to be selective–because if you try to see everything you will go quietly mad; and spend much of the time severely disappointed, because on the off-off Broadway level it really is a crap shoot–and though I won’t generalize, I’ll say the odds have only rarely been in my favor.

Some of these productions are hidden gems that should not be overlooked, though–last season’s "Good Will" and "Deep Down" to mention two–so I trust to my antenna and intuition about where to make the investment of time. Sometimes I remember advance good word from regional productions, sometimes it’s the by-line of a neglected playwright (e.g. Canada’s George Walker) sometimes I respond to the presence of a particular cast or creative team member…sometimes it’s just a gut hunch.

With "The Belmont Avenue Social Club" it was the advent of a second call from the press agent, Phil Bond. He had already tried to secure my attendance several weeks before–but the season was too busy and there was no time and I forgot. I recall him saying he’d read the script (to promote it, he would have had to, of course) and liked it a great deal. Two weeks later, he called again. He had, the night before, seen it. "I really think you should go," he said.

He didn’t have to make that second call; he’d already done his job. But his response to the play had been passionate. And while I don’t know Phil well, I do know him to be a bright, perceptive guy–so the possibility loomed large that he was onto something.

Was he ever.

"The Belmont Avenue Social Club" by Bruce ("Minor Demons") Graham is a modest, but powerful play about backroom politics. In a manner that is all too rare–I was about to type "these days," but the truth is, it has always been rare–"Belmont…" is a play for male actors, that demands a real "guy stuff" sensibility, in the tradition of Jason Miller’s "That Championship Season" (currently enjoying a revival by the Second Stage) and Louis La Russo II’s "Lamppost Reunion" (overdue for one). Like those two worthies, Mr. Graham’s play is an ensemble piece requiring verité acting; but where the others are about stripping away layers of myth and memory to reveal hard, sad truths about lost middle aged men, "Belmont" has a forward-moving thrust–and a beautifully crafted plot (so beautifully that you’re not even aware of the plot points as such until Mr. Graham heads toward the home stretch and begins to wrap up his loose ends.)

The play takes place in 1985–a bad time to hold onto the old notions of politics, though Fran Barelli (William Wise), the boss politico of an unidentified urban district, does his damndest to conduct business as usual after the sudden death of his councilman and mildly crooked cohort, Petey. (The play begins the day after Petey’s funeral.) As usual, his right hand man and cousin Chickie (Ernest Mingione) retains enough "encyclopedic" local data to help him keep tabs on the nabe–who’s saying what, and the roster of their vital statistics–while not having enough sense to realize that Frank Sinatra did not write all his own songs. In the wake of Petey’s death, the seat needs to be filled, and Fran decides to bypass young Doug Reardon (David Kener), who has been Fran’s protégé for 30 years and would seem to be heir apparent ("It’s not your time," Fran says, asking Doug to wait just another two years) in favor of guileless, overweight, unambitious 59 year old Tommy Krueger (Michael P. Moran). On the periphery of all this is the intensely bigoted representative of the blue collar contingent, Cholly Donahue (Malachy Cleary), whose casual use of words like "nigger" and phrases like "those people" marks him as a man with a deep, disturbing anger.

Strangely enough, though this thumbnail description would seem to set up a play about the downfall of a minor Boss Tweed, it is something quite different, and much cleverer–and more meaningful; it’s about political life on the cusp of change–and no character, in the end, is quite what he first appears to be. More special still, these revelations are not self-conscious reversals…they are entirely plausible and well-earned deepenings of personality and motivation.

The cast, though all are experienced theatre veterans, is virtually "unknown" in any industry sense (even by parochial New York standards), yet the ensemble is as distinctive and definitive as the original cast of "That Championship Season" (which included Paul Sorvino, Charles Durning and Richard A. Dysart). And a big sweeping bow to director Constance Grappo for unimpeachable verisimilitude–as well to set designer Lauren Kurki, who has captured the look and feel of a behind-the-bar club room down to the scuffed tiles and outmoded stereo unit.

When a play like "The Belmont Avenue Social Club" shows up in a low-octane, low-profile off-off-Broadway setting, it’s intensely frustrating, because somehow you want to save it, prolong it beyond its contractually limited run, get money producers to it quickly, the better to take it to a well-deserved open-ended engagement somewhere…but, as a critic, all you can really do is jump up and down and shout, "Pay attention! Pay attention!" And hope that people do.

Ask me how much of the press agent’s passion I share? Put it this way. What with my other commitments I just don’t have the time or enthusiasm to tilt at windmills. But I’ve just typed two pages worth. It’s Tuesday now. And the play closes on Sunday…

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