AISLE SAY New York
DIVIDING THE ESTATE by Horton
SCARCITY by Lucy Thurber
THE GOLDMAN PROJECT by Staci Swedeen
SIVE by John B. Keane
Reviewed by David Spencer
In playing catchup after a hard drive crash that laid low this 'zine for a few weeks, I'll deal with a few new openings in brief:
At Primary Stages, Horton Foote's 1989 play, Dividing the Estate, is making its NYC debut. The play is more or less about precisely what the title says, whether or not a once prosperous Texas family will be splitting up assets or working together to maintain the integrity of the family home.
As usual with Foote plays, the dialogue almost never achieves the stature of memorable quotability, much less poetry, wit of that nature is never on the table. Mr. Foote favors locutions that are demotic, everyday, seasoned with some regional patois perhaps, but otherwise almost bland. Almost because within that deceptive plainness, he manages to capture all manner of folk at their believably human best and worst.
What further distinguishes Dividing the Estate from some other of his plays is that, intentionally or not (it's hard to tell because of the deceptive plain-spokenness) he has created a comedy of manners. With money and its disposition being at the center of everything, there is certainly self-interest and conflict aplenty—yet no one onstage is a villain, and they are all somehow sympathetic, even likeable, which is odd, because some of them shouldn't be. But Mr. Foote has such affection for them all, wanting to treat them all fairly, never content to brand any with one simple stroke when he can deepen them with a second or third.
As directed by Michael Wilson, an absolutely stellar cast—including Elizabeth Ashley, Gerald McRainey, Penny Fuller, Arthur French—and of course Hallie Foote, the playwright's daughter—among others—makes this play an absolutely delightful little gem about how "the means to which one has become accustomed" change and test the limits, as well as the endurance, of Southern gentility.
Scarcity is not your average dysfunctional, working class family drama—it's a new age spin in which the family members in the throes of dysfunction are so hip to the clichˇs of modern psychology that they're ahead of anyone who would deign or condescend (as they see it) to help them, and can exploit the helpers' own fallibilities in turning things around such that the level of dysfunction is maintained while (ironically) a certain deeper, and not altogether unhealthy, level of family unity is maintained.
While Lucy Thurber's play at the Atlantic is never dull and often riveting, it suffers for the contrivance seeming so self conscious, extending even to the married couple's (Kristine Johnson and Michael T. Weiss) high school son (Jesse Eisenberg) and grade school daughter (Meredith Brandt), that we remain conscious of a writer at work, and rarely lose ourselves in a fully convincing story.
Still: memorably acted, unforgettable for its extreme concept and well directed by Jackson Gay.
The Goldman Project by Staci Swedeen at the Abingdon is a modest affair set in 1994, about a historian (Bernadette Quigley) returning to the home of an old, recently divorced boyfriend (Sam Guncler) to explore interviewing his mother (Anita Keal) about being a Holocaust survivor. Inevitably, of course, the interview does happen (I don't think I'm giving anything away that the play's title itself does not), and because they must in such a play, secrets about the experience, as well as their impact on family dynamics, eventually float to the surface.
As dramas with their roots in the Holocaust go, The Goldman Project is neither as memorable nor as moving as some signature plays and screenplays that have come before it, but it is nonetheless a dignified exploration of a small, neglected corner, in which the characters are humorous yet sad, troubled yet coping, and always looking past trouble and sadness for the meaning that gives the rest purpose. And in this case finding a bit of it.
Joe Brancato's direction is occasionally a klik or two too "hot" for a play this intimate (every now and again, to use sound mixing terms, I wanted to apply a "compressor" effect to "roll off the highs") but it is nonetheless assured, purposeful and sensitive, garnering excellent performances from his triumvirate of players.
Finally there's Sive by the late John B. Keane, a staple of Irish Theatre since the mid fifties, making its NYC debut at the Irish Rep. Mr. Keane may have intended his play to be a look at the lower classes and the extremes to which some of its more desrperate citizens may go to achieve some kind of financial stability, as a kind of social commentary—the play concerns the uncle and aunt guardians (Fiana Toibin and Aiden Redmond) of teenage girl Sive (Wrenn Schmidt), pushed by the venal local matchmaker (Patrick Fitzgerald) into selling her off as a bride to an elderly, lascivious, decrepit but rich farmer (Christopher Joseph Jones), in spite of her love for a well-meaning local boy (Pats Bocock)—but in the harsh light of a half century later, it's just a big ol' melodrama, with nothing that isn't precisely what it seems to be on the surface, and nary an interesting story reversal or personality revelation in sight.
This is not to say that it's bad by any stretch. In fact, the production is extremely well-rendered, played by a fine cast, under the direction of Ciaran O'Reilly—but how much you take to it will depend on your tolerance for a very old-fashioned kind of dramaturgy. Whatever Mr. Keane may represent to the Emerald Isle, he isn't a patch on US dramatists like Miller and Williams, who, years before his debut, were making their own social comments much more boldly, unpredictably and provocatively—and whatever has prevented his works from leaving their mark on the standard repertoire here, undue neglect does not seem to be the culprit.