You can’t make up your mind too quickly about Heidi Schreck’s new play Grand Concourse, because she doesn’t reveal her hand until the play is almost over. Sometimes you think you’re in the grip of a psychological thriller, sometimes in the thrall of a Christmas feelgood play, sometimes a drama about a workplace family; only near the conclusion is the ride quantified. The style doesn’t shift, but the progression of events causes your perspective to shift. Under normal circumstances, such instability is a red flag and usually signals focus sprawl. But Ms. Schreck is into a very specific kind of layering here. In most cases, you meet the core essence of a character at the intro, and as the play progresses, you get a deeper understanding of what you already knew; not necessarily without surprise and revelation, but rarely anything that alters your emotional investment.
In Grand Concourse, though, we’re not entirely sure of anybody at first. We’re introduced to an outer shell; the more we get to know the people—the more those shells are filled out—the more the characters interact—the more they do things that require forgiveness, or call upon them to be forgiving—the more we experience their own instability, within and with others who frustrate their expectations. Nobody has a simple story; no one is too easily knowable.
The setting is a soup kitchen in the Bronx in the present day. The dialogue never refers to the ethnicity of the characters in any overt way, but its seems to be a component of the locale and the intended character contrast, so I’ll particularize it here. Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), an African-American, is the plainclothes, volunteer nun in charge of the kitchen; the daughter of a famous feminist mother and an ironically abusive father, she struggles with her faith and with her limited capacity for forgiveness, trying to build up her daily prayer by progressively adding seconds and minutes, as if the exercise will somehow grant her immersion. Among her regular, established cohorts are Oscar, a young Hispanic staffer, whose job is to keep the homeless guys in line and help with kitchen maintenance; and Frog (Lee Wilkof), one of said homeless, maybe 60, seemingly just eccentric, a burned-out radical from the 70s with a bag of esoteric jokes to tell, but also needful of mind-steadying meds.
Breaking into the enclave, as it were, is new volunteer, Emma (Ismenia Mendes). On the cusp of 20, she’s eager, vulnerable, troubled and—something else; indeed, several something else-es. Everyone in Grand Concourse has hidden dimensions, but Emma more than the others. And thus she alters the normal.
I’m loath to say more than that, because the best way to experience this play is without benefit of signposts to anticipate. Ms. Schreck has delivered her story (and her characters’ pathologies, if you’ll allow) very honestly…and ultimately recognizably to anyone who has gone through the process of trying to harness a relationship with a moving target, and what that forces you to learn about yourself.
Every actor in the quartet is exceptional, but Ms. Bernstine’s sympathetic yet unsentimental portrayal of Shelley has the potential to be a breakout turn, as it masterfully balances an inner life of long-suffering uncertainty with an outer life governed by meticulous standards and routine as a substitute for salvation. The direction by Kip Fagan is both laser sharp and nicely invisible; and the work of the design team, in particular the set by Rachel Hauck, is brilliantly researched and rendered.
Looking back on my calendar, Grand Concourse may be my favorite straight play of the season so far. Here’s hoping it has a long life in this production beyond its limited run. I don’t think it will have much trouble finding a long afterlife in others.
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