Death focuses the mind wonderfully, someone once wrote, and in Eric Alter's intelligent and cleverly named new play Curing Ron, the prospect of an early death does more than focus minds.
The beginning of the play makes one think, wrongly, that it's going to be your typical AIDS play. Two Doctors, Haley and Polinsky (Jesse St. Louis and Marc Gettis) appear on stage and recite the brutal facts of the disease: how many a day are infected, how many will die. BUt they're also working on a vaccine and the scene ends with they both discover that it has some chance of being effective. The action then segues to the office of a super rich businessman, Ronald (Philip Bartolf) who we quickly discover both disrespects his long suffering and nurturant wife and keeps a mistress. Then the play takes us to the ratty apartment of Ron Jr. (Robert Sullivan) and his childhood friend Rooke (Daniel Roach). We first see thirty year old Ron sitting on a broken down sofa, painting model cards and bundeled up in a jacket. The heat has been turned off due to non payment of rent, and Ron has just lost his latest menial job. Yes, Ron is a loser. More, he's an intentional loser. He refuses to take a sinecure at his father's firm, and even refuses to take Dad's money to tide him over (though he will borrow some Rooke, an assistant reporter who makes as little money as assistant reporters make). Though Ron can be charming and funny, his bitterness toward his father, who seemed to favor his now dead older brother, is bottomless. We like him, but grudgingly, and can't understand what his intelligent, talented and beautiful girlfriend Amy (Christine Scherrer-Seisler) sees in him. Her quip, "I have a soft spot in my heart for losers," doesn't explain it; that she falls pregnant by him is astounding.
But it's impending fatherhood, as well as econnomic panic and the desire to impress his beloved/hated father once and for all that drives Ron to make the most drastic decision of his life. He will be the guinea pig for the doctors' AIDS vaccine. This means, of course, that he must be infected with the virus.
His reward will be a million dollars, limitless health insurance for him and Amy (when he gets around to marrying her) and, if he survives, a place in medical history. The writer won't give away the rest of the story. BY the way, the title doesn't give away the rest of the story either, not in the way you'd think.
Alter's writing is filled with a melancholy wit: "A screw up and a screw up named after a chess piece," Ronald grumbles about his son and his son's roommate. Yet the writing isn't superficial; Alter has too much compassion for that, and it's that compassion that keeps the characters from being stereotypes from a TV dramedy. The actors, under Rodney E. Reyes' deft direction, are excellent. Bartolf's Ronald is a s.o.b: intolerant, bad tempered, misogynistic, materialistic, and faithless in more ways than one. Still, the transformation he undergoes as he realizes what his last surviving son has done--and why--is believable and poignant. We see in his indulgent wife Kathy, beautifully performed by Karen Elkind an older version of Amy. We know that there are women like them in real life, those women who stay with their men for reasons known only to them, and who we want to both shake some sense into and admre their patience and determination to hold their families together thrugh trauma after trauma.
Scherrer-Seisler's Amy is sweet and sharp as she is forbearing, as is Roach's Rooke, come to think of it, as he takes on the job of chronicling Ron's journey. Gettis is excellent as Dr. Polinsky, who's in it for the love, mostly, and St. Loius is appropriate smarmy as Dr. Haley, a James Carville look a like who's in it for the glory. Caroline Saaman is also stellar in three roles as Ronald's secretary, a nurse and a crisp CNN reporter.
Brendan Monahan is all eagar innocence as the memory of the now eternally young Brian, Ron Jr's sainted brother. Sullivan is truly remarkable as Ron, who throughout all of his self-pity, perverseness, bruised ego, heroism and deep capacity for love, keeps the audience on his side. Curing Ron is a smart, funny, sad and thought provoking play. It was presented by the American Theatre of of Actors.
The opening play, Familiar, starts with an awkward subway encounter between Roger (Chris Lucas) and Sharon (Martha Holmes). The subway car was inventively recreated, but the story line soon became repetitious and predictable. Alter's surprise ending was apparent early on, making the final revelation anticlimactic. Smoothly directed by Gerard Mawn, actors Lucas and Holmes did develop a friendly chemistry as their characters make their way home.
The Bright Eyed Boy, forcefully staged by Robert Sullivan, depicts a surreal dialogue between nameless soldiers (Sullivan and Matt McCarthy, both strong in their roles) on opposites sides of war. Alter injects some touching moments when the men realize they have more in common than they thought, but the overall harshness of the scene (plus a monotonous video display) quickly became off-putting. Original lighting was provided by David J. DaSilva, and Suzanne McGorry contributed clever costumes.
An elevator is where Edward (Larry Shagawat) discovers Humility Between 7th and 8th. Devilishly directed by Paul Russell, Alter's comic look at a voicebox that offers advice is fresh and funny. Adding to the enjoyment was Jason Romas's hilarious timing as the voice of Larry.
Confession, directed by Russell, is a brief interlude between a priest (Mark Liebert) and a young man (Jason Romas again, this time appearing on stage). The characters are interesting, but the short length made the piece play more like a sketch than a fully-developed premise.
Act Two of the bill opened with Love Among Squirrels. Helmed by Juliana Farrell, this session between patient Sam (Bill Edwards) and his therapist (Wind Klaison) is thoughtful and tight. Alter's observations on relationships are offered with uncompromising accuracy. Costumes by Suzanne McGorry add to the credibility, and the action was enhanced by Bruce Engler's original music.
The most hilarious play of the night was Battles Inside the Cerebral Cortex, written with originality and wit by Alter and staged with comic flair by Jenn Bornstein. Stephanie (Stacey Albenice) and Tyler (Joe Ranioa) are out on a dinner date, only Stephanie is not into Tyler as much as Tyler is into Stephanie. Enter Stephanie's Guilty Conscience, humorously embodied by Jennifer Crane. Soon after, the girl's Non-Guilty Conscience, caustic and comically played by Takemma Morton, appears to fight for Stephanie's right to leave Tyler for Michael (Jason Romas) without a shred of remorse. The actors all scored with their portrayals, Bornstein kept the action light and lively, and Alter hits the comic bull's-eye with this winning piece.
As quickly as Battles Inside the Cerebral Cortex brings audiences up, "The Sparrow House" brings them back down. Darkly directed by Lauren Moran, Alter's disturbing drama finds two battered children, Sara (Emma Rosenthal) and Sean (Austin Colaluca), planning to escape from a dungeon-like room. The kids were believable in their roles, but the play on the whole is an uncomfortable miscue, and even the last-minute plot twist can't redeem it.
Knockout, with staging based on original direction by David Sinkus, featured an intriguing pair of actors (Melissa Pellechio and Michael Moller) domestically disputing in a waiting room. The fists and accents between Pellechio and Moller flew with a flourish of comic charm. However, Bill Edwards as the doctor was too over-the-top at times to be effective.
Settings by Todd Mills were versatile and inventive, particularly the opening sequence where a subway car becomes a city street. Mills's lighting added to the ambiance of each scene. Larry Wilbur provided the crisp sound design.aph to your block, write your own text and edit me.
Even the situation that sets the show in motion is contrived, as each group waits for a third to join them. The missing man and woman were out on a blind date (ostensibly with each other, of course), so, while they're waiting, the men and the women regale their friends with the horror stories from their own dating experiences. The stories range from simple cases of mixed wires, outright deception, coming on too strong, and so on.
The material is often perceptive and funny, but it seems like it has very little to say or present. At least until the man and the woman return to their prospective groups to talk about their time together. At that point, Nice Guys Finish... becomes sparkling, intelligent, and theatrical in a way it had never even suggested before.
Alter's primary argument is that men and women simply don't know how to communicate with each other, so they tend to send the wrong signals, encourage things they don't really want, and end up with the type of person that isn't right for them. The title is taken from the familiar saying "nice guys finish last," which is adopted in the play by Tommy (Rick Holloway) who gives it as advice to the male half of the blind date, Stevie (Rob Sullivan, also the show's director). The women, meanwhile, have given up all hope of finding someone sincere and thoughtful; the bitter Sherrie (Takemma Morton) even goes so far as to decry the possibility of love altogether. So when Stevie and his date Kimmy (Jennifer Crane) begin to explain the events of their time together, they're facing an uphill battle.
The two end up seated center stage between the warring factions of men and women, a bastion of reality on the battlefield of preconceptions and biases dividing the two. As the scene progresses, however, the discussion between the six people is one of surprising texture; it adopts the simplicity and familiarity of the earlier scenes specifically to turn them on their heads and show the danger that such prejudices, in any area of life, can bring to interaction with others.
It's a cunning tactic on Alter's part, and one that pays off comedically and dramatically - Stevie and Kim's interactions with their friends, who exist both in the present reality and in their subconscious minds, play beautifully. This fluid interchange of ideas and emotions across traditional barriers of time and space is handled in the way only theater truly can, and it grants everything that comes after (and, after careful re-examination, what came before) a surprisingly amiable tone, and a smile-inducing glow.
Holloway grates just a bit as the perpetual dating cynic and Jenn Doerr's performance as the slightly nerdy third woman is a bit too one-note. But Morton's hard-edged character anchors the female side of the argument, with the dubious, questioning nature exhibited by Michael O'Hagan's "Big Lou" on the male side validates Tommy's points slightly better than Holloway does. (With the performances, as with the text itself, contrasts of all sorts are dominating.) Even Jim Dingevan, as an easy-to-irritate waiter and an intrusive guitarist, finds plenty of comedy in his few moments onstage.
Last but not least, Sullivan and Crane make the perfect couple for the show's romantic focal point; her somewhat skeptical eagerness and his ingratiating behavior (even when trying to put up a rock-hard façade) are exactly what Nice Guys Finish... needs to elevate it from the everyday to the special. It's impossible not to want these two, and others like them, to succeed and flourish together, something that would suggest there's hope for stronger male-female relations after all.
Sketch (Daniel J. Scott) is having a bad life. He's an artist who not only can't sell a painting, but is enduring the horrors of artist block; for most of the play a blank canvas stares at him relentlessly from one corner of his crummy apartment. He's not doing too well at his day job, which he chares with his ambitious childhood friend Chince (Larry Karpen). His Dad (Michael Kerns), a rigid Man In a Suit type, doesn't approve of anything he does. Worst of all, he's broken up with his sexy girlfriend, the Catherine Zeta-Jones look-a-like (Desiree Cobb) and his heartbreak seems to be the fount of all his other problems. One night he meets the delicately pretty but blind writer Remi, (Mary Sheridan) and the world changes.
The play follows Remi and Sketch's sweet and nearly old fashioned courtship (thier first date is to a park, they sleep with each other only after weeks of going out.) In the meantime Sketch's other pals, the Bible misquoting Preacher (Aarion Kion) and Cookie (Jason Romas), along with Remi's sister Susan (Heather Sabella) and their friend Kyra (Bunita Tilley) act as a comic, nervous, orbiting Greek chorus. Alter's wit and insight keeps the dialogue from being sitcomy or bathetic, even when Sketch visits his mother's grave, red rose in hand, to have a little talk with her about his new lady. The scene is also saved by Bornstein's clever direction. She has the couple's friends comment on their relationship from different places all over the stage. Lighting designer Jamie Kimball's spotlight falls on them one at a time.
Scott is adorable as Sketch. With not one ironic bone in his body, his desapir, frustration, rage, compassion and above all his deep adolescent intense love are genuine and raw. Sheridan's Remi is waiflike, but as she tells the perpetually worried Susan, not helpless. Sheridan brings out the character's intelligence and even a certain toughness. While the other actors are also good, Romas is a scream as Cookie, Sketch's big hearted, wise cracing gay pal. This brings up a small quibble; Alter rather too strictly seperates his characters into those who are nice and those who Are Not. The audience is not supposed to like Sketch's Dad, or Chince, especially after a druken scene when he and Sketch finally celebrate a sale and spill some unpleasant truths.
Elisabeth is a horror; when she shows up late in the play to wreck Sketch's life is seems preposterous that he ever considered dating such an evil wench. Themost complex character is Susan; Remi calls her "the warden," and for a good reason. Her overprotectiveness of her nearly thirty year old sister is aggravating, but it's also clear she acts, mostly, out of fearful love. Remi's fragile loveliness, fluty voice, and the fact that she was orphaned in childhood might be flirting with stereotype (she could have looked and sounded like the voluptious Elisabeth, after all), and Sketch doesn't have to have the black and gay sidekicks to show that he's a nice, liberal guy, but no matter. Alter does make his NIce People folks we want to spend time with. They're not too good to be true.
Kimball's lighting design has nearly a filmic quality to it, with rapid blackouts that jump all over the stage, from Remi and Susan's place, on stage right to Sketch's place on stage left, to the balcony that overlooks the stage where Chince makes his increasingly frustrated cell phone calls to his twitterpated artist friend.
Using shabby, overstuffed couches and chairs, set designer Todd Mills evokes the domiciles of struggling artist types. The music, though canned, is appropriate and often funny, one comic, poignant scene has Sketch wailing along with Air Supply's "I'm All Out of Love," using Elisabeth's old hair brush as a microphone. Alter says his intent is to make the theatergoer walk out of the theater felling better than we she came in. In Something About You and the Fourth of July, he succeeds.
In Absolutely Anything, Meryl (Mellisa Vaughn-Dean) will do anything for an acting role, but what is a casting director (Kristin Colaneri) to do? The script was amusing and clever enough to make one wonder how much funnier the piece would have been had the acting been toned down. Vaugh-Dean and Colanri had enough presence to sustain interest, but some attention was lost when they turned frantic.
Win, Place and Show again displays the writing talent of Mr. Alter. Father (Michael R. Thomas) and Son (Pat Cobb) spend a day at the racetrack. The metaphor of betting comes center stage as these two try to connect at some level. There seemed to be a strange disconnection between the actors that made the piece seem a little uneven in performance. It was unclear whether it was the acting or the actors commenting on the characters which caused the tension.
Although not as deep as some of the other pieces of the evening, Brownie Scout Encounter was hilarious. Marvin (Larry Shagawat) is preparing to go on a date with Gail (Allison Crosby) when a psychotic Brownie Scout (Lily Burd) knocks on the door. Reminiscent of a play by Christopher Durang, this play was just plain fun. Here, the acting of Shagawat, Crosby and Chris Tessler was in top form.
The acting of Shannan Leigh and Tom Dean as two people who have been heartbroken and end up on a cruise in The Moon and Amy Schmidt made this Alter's deepest and most poetic piece. Moving, illuminating and transcendent are the words best described for this Moon.
Exhaustion is a happy marriage with a feel between the mystery of Moon and the over-the-top antics of Brownie. Victor (Karlo Tooma) visits the mental-health clinic and holds the doctors (Chris Tessler and Bill Edwards) and its head Lucy (Leyda Torres) hostage in a search for a cure. Alter's wit and craft were evident as Victor tries to find a solution for his woes.
The closing piece, Knockout, lived up to its name. Vinnie (Michael Moller) is having marital woes with wife Sylvia (Melissa Pellechio) and employs ex-boxer-turned-marriage-councilor Dr. Bibbons (Bill Edwards) to help. Knockout won with Moller, Pellechio and Edwards excellent performances, Alter's excellent dialogue and David Sinkus's wonderful directing. And the final boxing match! A winning punch!
The uncredited set was minimal with a few add-ons to give the pieces a sense of location, though the lights, usually used for a general stand-up comedy plot, were barely adequate, with too much glare.
Writing: 2Directing: 2Acting: 2Sets: 1Costumes: 1Lighting/Sound: 1
Sketch is heartbroken. What follows, in a series of choice, episodic scenes, delineates his journey through grief and recovery, guided by his best friend Cookie, who is gay and lives upstairs; his co-worker Chince, who is self-absorbed and obsessed with money and women; and his newer friend Preacher, who is African American and, following a stint in prison, training to become a delightfully hip minister of God. (Yes, Sketch's pals feel, at first, a bit by-the-numbers. But Alter and his actors make them vivid in time; by the play's second act, you can't help but like these guys.)
Cookie announces each of Sketch's "stages" as the men try to push him back into the world of the living. Eventually, they get him to go on a series of hilariously horrifying dates (via a personals ad thoughtfully composed by Cookie), the funniest of which is with a pushy vegan who carries her pet fish around with her in a plastic bag. More promisingly, the guys take Sketch to a Greenwich Village bar, where Preacher immediately pairs up with smart and sassy Kyra, and Sketch meets one of Kyra's friends, a lively, pretty young woman named Remi. Sketch actually draws Remi's picture while they're out on the dance floor. After he gives it to her—and after Remi is pulled away by her over-protective sister Susan—he realizes that Remi is blind.
Alter doesn't indulge in stuff like love at first sight, but it's obvious where Something About You and the 4th of July is headed as soon as these two meet. It takes a while for Sketch and Remi to connect again, and once they do it takes not just time but a good deal of effort and maturity and understanding for them to build a relationship. Theirs is more fraught with roadblocks than the average romance: Sketch has to learn how to cope with Remi's blindness, and Remi has to learn to trust Sketch. Susan's wariness complicates matters, as does Sketch's emotionally distant father, who disapproves of Remi; Chince's thoughtless blundering further jeopardizes the budding relationship. But the end is never really in doubt, and Alter gives us a sweetly satisfying conclusion that lives up beautifully to the play's evocative title.
Jennifer Bornstein has staged Alter's play with loving care at the spacious Chernuchin Theatre, in a production that is definitely high-end off-off-Broadway. Nicholas L. Troccoli's unit set serves the piece beautifully. The cast of nine genial actors do generally fine work, with the standouts being Daniel J. Scott, who is instantly lovable as Sketch, and Mary Sheridan, who is enormously affecting and convincing as Remi. Larry Karpen is suitably sleazy as Chince. Bunita Tilley is great fun as Kyra and, especially, as the vegan blind date, Kate.
Something About You and the 4th of July is not perhaps as artful as it might be, but in its affirmation of values such as commitment, honesty, and kindness, it generates tremendous goodwill. The family that Sketch and his friends ultimately create in this play brims with love, and they make this sweet-natured romantic comedy into a sleeper feel-good hit.
Scenes alternated between the blue side (where the boys were) and the pink side (where the girls were, natch). At the beginning scenes were short —the guys clicking beers, then blackout; the girls meeting on a park bench, then blackout. This was a theme throughout, as the audience's attention was shifted back and forth from one side of the stage to the other, with only half of the stage illuminated at a time (the crisp and beautifully accurate lighting was uncredited). Male and female stereotypes were reinforced by the script, as the men and women critiqued the other sex's behavior, with humorous counterpoint. The cons and cons of blind dates, as it were:
Never let your mother set you up on a date, Tom (Dean Negri) pontificated to his friend Lou (Christopher Tessler), and always be aware that a girl you haven't met who sounds good on the phone will always turn out to be fat. Never let your boss set you up on a date, Sherrie (Melissa Pellechio) announces to Jannie (Edmire Saint-Pierre), and isn't it too bad that men don't behave like gentlemen anymore! Never be a gentleman, Tom announces, and never pick her up in your car. One date ordered escargot for her without asking first, Sherrie says, and boy, were they disgusting. A date with a fat girl turns out even worse than expected when her killer brother goes along as a chaperone. Then there's the Arab who only wants a new member of his harem, and what about that woman who throws up during a kiss.
Both Negri and Pellechio were very good, Negri full of bravado and bluster, and Pellechio using her hair and nails as props by which she inadvertently showed just what's important to her. But the twain meet when the boys' friend Stevie (Robert Scott Sullivan) has a blind date with the girls' friend Kimberly (Erin McCormack). Stevie, having been tutored by Tom, tries hard to be the boor Tom's assertiveness training would have him be, and Kim is stuck between following her own instincts and the advice she's gotten from Sherrie. Of course expectations are confounded (she likes comics! He reads more than the sports page!) but because of the sharp staging, interest and even a degree of suspense were maintained to see how it all would play out. Stevie breaks the action of the date scene to argue with Tom on how to act, and Kim does the same to explain to Sherrie that her advice is counterintuitive. Of course they are made for each other, and once they allow their true selves to come through, the audience is allowed a sigh of relief. And a laugh at Sherrie's frustration when all advice is ignored.
Nice Guys Finish... was as obvious as its title, but the sharp and funny performances by Negri and Pellechio did a lot to raise the stakes. Tessler was simply there to be talked to, but Saint-Pierre's smile was so genuine when Kim made her own way that it was a shame she had so little to do. Sullivan and McCormack both nicely navigated the predictability of their roles, mixing insecurity with sweetness.
The set (uncredited) was in line with the stereotypes — the boys' (blue) side taking place around a bar, and the girls' side, a park setting in vibrant pink. The concept was used very well as the dénouement is signaled when Stevie crosses the line to the pink side. Special mention must be made in praise of the lighting-board operator who couldn't have made the switches between the two sides of the stage any more clean and sharp if far more sophisticated equipment had been at his/her disposal.
The evening ended with Barry Manilow singing "Daybreak." Ah, romance!
Production Stage Manager: Wendy Patten.