by Andrea Lepcio
Directed by Steven Golux
Starring J. Smith-Cameron and Dierdre O'Connell
Vital Theatre at the McGinn/Cazale
2162 Broadway at 76th Street
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

Every few years, a drama about a character facing impending death via disease emerges, and in my experience, most of these, be they filmed or staged, seem to land hugely with audiences. I remember hit films (like Bang the Drum Slowly and Terms of Endearment); TV movies that attained iconic status (like Brian’s Song, Griffin Loves Phoenix and Thursdays with Morrie); of course the two genre-defining AIDS plays (the gentle As Is and the raging The Normal Heart); and arguably the best, for being unsentimental yet poetic, Wit. What all the entries in the genre have in common is heart, compassion, some varying measure of infectious outrage, and of course the mirror up to our own fears about facing The End. (Which reminds me: the Burt Reynolds film about a guy looking into the abyss: The End.)

            But they also have something else. At the core, they have solidly to phenomenally interesting main characters. (And/or a great premise: in Griffin Loves Phoenix, a.k.a. Griffin and Phoenix, by John Hill, the titular lovers [Peter Falk and Jill Clayburgh first, Amanda Peet and Dermot Mulroney in the remake] start an affair by way of finding refuge from each’s own pending mortality—and for the longest time, neither one realizes that the other is also dying.) And I kind of think that’s what’s missing in Andrea Lepcio’s Looking for the Pony. The characters are respectable enough: two sisters, one a lesbian budding writer (J. Smith-Cameron); the other a tireless volunteer for good causes, wife and mother (Dierdre O’Connell)—the former being the support system, the latter being the victim. If there’s a theme running throughout the play it’s about the fight to retain normalcy in life (pursuit of career and training, the continuation of good works and family obligations) when there’s a fundamentally abnormal condition imposed. And the characters (who could not be played better) face it all bravely, candidly, humorously…but I think, in the end, maybe, maybe, it’s their normalcy and quest to maintain normalcy that kept me and my companion of the evening at a distance from the play.

            Plus, the piece is full of elements that made me constantly mindful that I was watching a play, mostconspicuous among them, the sub-plot of the “healthy” sister wanting to be a writer, getting what seems particularly unhelpful and generic guidance from an established guru of the lit world who refuses to let up on her just because she has a family crisis. I have no idea, absolutely none, whether or not Looking for the Pony is overtly or even subtly autobiographical, but it has the feel of an author projecting herself into the drama because both the goal and the writer-speak are amorphous.

            My companion and I were split on the two remaining cast members, who play multiple roles: She rather liked Lori Funk and Debargo Sanyal; I didn’t think either had quite enough range for the task, and thus emphasized even further for me the work being done to put the tale across.

            Direction by Stephen Golux is dignified and understated, which is about right; but also low on perceptible inspiration and nuance. All in all, a sincere and well-meaning effort, but the sense of effort is what quietly permeates.

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