Friday, March 27, 2009

Theater Review: I, Undertow (Beckmann Theatre)

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

In the staging of his latest play, I, Undertow, prolific playwright and Emmy winner Blake Bradford once again focuses his characters in rural western North Carolina, where he was raised.

[Blake Bradford, playwright]
In this Phare Play Production at the Beckmann Theater at 314 West 54 Street (through April 5), he focuses on the return of a favored grand/son, a budding painter on the verge of fame who had left his home a dozen years before to move to New York, and has now arrived home to see the ailing matriarch’s last days. The relations to whom he returns are sprawling, including some extended family folks. Along the way, he brings with him his lusty and out-of-comfort-zone British art dealer, directly after a one-night fling.

[Attending services]
The Morgan family is deeply spiritual, with many scenes depicting services either in or around the church, and the characters throughout sing many hymnals, especially during scene breaks as transitions. Bradford explains in the program, “I grew up in a small community of religious conservatives and although I decided hot to live my life in the same manner as these people, I do understand them. I have seen how beautiful a church service can be and how lives can be changed through religious communities.” He brings that made flesh to the audience.

[Michael Weems, expatriate painter Justin Morgan]
We are first introduced to the main protagonist, Justin Morgan, as he begins his night of passion with his agent and art dealer, the sophisticated Monica LeTourneau. Justin is a wounded soul who has a memory gap from his teen years that drove him away, leading him to New York. He is about to head back home when the call that his dearly loved and superbly strong willed grandmother is approaching her time to leave this veil. Michael Weems subtly underplays Justin as someone who has become more sophisticated than his family on some levels, but still humbled by his background. Plus there is a mystery about why he left, which of course will be made clear by the end of the two hours.

[Sara Lerner, art dealer Monica LeTourneau]
As the lust interest who travels down to the small town with Justin for a lark (and to secure her latch on him for commission security), Sara Lerner is long and slender in a part that was seemingly written for her (though I don’t really understand why Monica is British, except possibly to make her all the more alien and alienated from anyone else; being a high-brow New Yorker probably would have worked just as fine). Although initially not sure of her place in the family (or even with Justin, for that matter), which is keenly expressed in a bean-snapping scene (literally and figuratively), Monica slowly comes to appreciate the slower pace and the good heart of the Morgan family.

[Carol Neiman, matriarch Eunice Morgan]
As the ailing mother of two sons and two grandkids, Carol Neiman plays Eunice Morgan with dignity and respect. She is a woman of her era, who knows how little time she has left and has the strong desire to set everything right – as she sees it – before death comes a-knockin’. She is one of the many catalysts in a play about resilient women who have strong opinions, and are not afraid to make them clear. Eunice is the loving center of it all, and I saw the gentleman in front of me wiping away some tears at a tender moment near the final act, which attests to both the writing and the talent of Carol, who came to the acting field later in life.

[Bill Purdy, religious leader Paul Daniel Morgan]
The elder of Eunice’s two sons is the pastor at the local church, Paul Daniel Morgan, played with conviction by Bill Purdy. For most of the play, Paul Daniel is present as spiritual leader, brother, and uncle, and it is not clear until much later what pivotal role he has in the story. His place appears to be guidance to the family, to help them through their troubled times, though he has some quandaries of his own with which to deal.

[Laurence Waltman, father Grayson Morgan]
Paul Daniel’s brother Grayson, ably played by Laurence Waltman, is in a hard place: while still in love with his repressed wife, he also is coming off an affair with a much younger employee, and is penitent for it. Despite the Jerry Springer moment, Grayson is actually a warm-hearted character who easily has the audience on his side, despite the dastardly deed (performed and ended way before the play starts). It would be quite simple to make him a pitiable milquetoast or the flip of that, a womanizing swine, but his affair comes out of pain, and Laurence plays that character well.

[Peggy Queener, lonely wife Deborah Morgan]
Bored with her surroundings and angry at her cheatin’ hearted husband, Deborah Morgan is looking for something to spark her quiet, unfulfilled life. Peggy Queener is excellent as Deborah, who runs the gamut of anger to expressing her excitement in a most public forum. Armed with a DVD collection and bolstered by face time with the sophisticated Monica, Peggy delivers a strong monolog, which is one of the strangest and funniest moments of the play. Completely likeable, Peggy gives Deborah a dignity that could have been lost in the shrill anger of her frustrated character.

[Emily Fitzpatrick, sibling rival Nicole Morgan]
As the sister of the prodigal son, Nichole Morgan has had to endure knowing that she comes second in her family to her runaway brother, Justin, which has echoing effects on her life (and possibly her marriage). For years she has had to swallow her pride, but especially when he comes back. Luckily, Emily Fitzpatrick is up for the task of making Nichole a clear voice, and is especially strong during her agitated monolog midway in the second act. Emily does a wonderful slow burn, emoting with her face all the anger and anguish that Nicole feels.

[Molly Church, hospice nurse Katie Gouge]
Playing the girl from the past who got away, Molly Church breathes life into Katie Gouge, a long time acquaintance of the Morgan family, and Justin’s ex- who he left behind when he mysteriously left for New York. There is no mystery about Katie’s allegiances and feelings, which Molly plays with quiet pride, giving her a deep strength. She is not just the spurned ex-love interest, she holds an important key to Justin’s secret, and her crucial character shows that she’s not just a dancing donkey nurse’s uniform. There is a subtle focus to the character that Molly embodies.

[Susanne Gottesman-Traub, family friend Aunt Lizzie]
Most people know an Aunt Lizzie, the person in the neighborhood who everyone calls “Aunt” (or “Ma” or “Granny”), but is not related to anyone, but is still part of the family. Susanne Gottesman-Traub personifies this role in a warm, gimme-a-hug way, but under this is one of the strongest of women in the play, who makes a life-changing decision that affects nearly every other character. No, I won’t give it away, but I would like to say that we all need an Aunt Lizzie, and if she were as Susanne embodies her, well, we’d all be better for it.

[Katie and Justin rally round Eunice]
Although this is a play with a male central character (Justin), it is actually the women in the play that are the driving force as the agents for change. The three males are not necessarily weak, but are unsure and unstable, even when in leadership roles. They are either insecure about what is behind them, where they stand presently, where they are going, or any combination. It is the women who take a stand, project their needs, speak their minds, and cause things to happen. Whatever actions the males take, it is through the catalyst of the proceedingss of the women. Stay married or not? Figure out the mysteries of the past? Resolve the problems of the present? It’s the women who are the strongest. Fortunately the female cast members are certainly up for the job of portraying their characters as fierce without being harridans, and the male actors are strong enough to play their men as, well, distracted without making them clowns.

While I understand that religion is an important part of family and relationships in this play, perhaps it was used a bit too freely. For example, as the scenes change from one to another and the cast members change the set props, they sing (quite lovely, actually) hymns to reflect the bond between the characters and their faith. However, occasionally as scene separators, the church is “set up” and the hymns are sung while they sit there for the length of the song, and then the set is broken down again. While I understand and appreciate that seat placement during these vignettes is telling (for example in the Grayson / Deborah relationship), this was perhaps a little overdone, and actually slowed the story flow down rather than pushing it along. That being said, I do like the way Bradford infuses the beliefs of this extended family without hitting the audience over the head with it.

Though he is prolific, I have only seen two plays by Blake Bradford, the other being Gay Slave Handbook, reviewed earlier this month in this blog. Both were departures for him (Gay contained a three-person cast when he usually write for ensembles, and this play is, in his own words, “my first attempt at a love story”), but there are some overlapping themes. For example, both plays have violent fights between close loved ones, a strong belief in faith (in either one or all characters), sexual impropriety, and at some point the action takes place in New York.

To sum up, this is a perceptive ensemble cast who takes the fine material and makes it even better. I look forward to seeing many of these actors in future productions.

Phare Play Mission statement (in part) : The name Phare Play says it all. On one hand it reflects our desire to be the beacon of light in the Off and Off-Off Broadway community. We work to be the lighthouse that artists can find as a home for exploration of their creativity. The second meaning is participation on equal terms (fair play). We are true believers of the power of the ensemble and allow everyone that works on our productions the ability to make their voices heard. Our purpose is to provide a top-quality public arena for the professional implementation of the philosophy and aesthetics our ensemble wishes to explore. Through the collaboration of artists, resident professionals and audiences, we examine the theatrical event and the methods used for its realization in contemporary performance. We explore playmaking in and of our time. We produce a broad variety of material, from classic to contemporary. We encourage both up and coming talent and our seasoned veterans to join our journey. We believe these artists that contribute to our mission will grow with us while stimulating all of us to grow as well. Our artists will always find a home to explore, engage, and entice.

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