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A CurtainUp Review

Acts of Faith
By Les Gutman

When I last visited the Connelly Theatre, for Chain Lightning Theatre's excellent production of Beyond the Horizon, it occurred to me that, from the vantage point of the theater's Alphabet City location, O'Neill's play might as well be set on another planet. (It takes place on a New England farm.) Acts of Faith, on the other hand, is right at home on the Lower East Side, and it resonates with a corresponding sense of comfort.

On one level, Acts of Faith is a love story; on another, a coming-of-age play. Its most interesting achievement, however, is in the way it illuminates the mixing bowl of cultures that life in this neighborhood represents. Playwright Stephen Mantin, who has lived on the Lower East Side for twenty-eight years and who thus has a very first-hand feel for his subject, accomplishes this by focusing on a triangle of interwoven relationships. The cast consists of a retired Jewish socialist cab driver, his devoutly Catholic Jamaican housekeeper and an African American man in his early thirties who fancies himself a budding playwright.

The action takes place in the simple book-filled apartment of Sid (Anthony Spina). Willy (Rik Francis) is the son of Sid's comrade -- called "Big" -- from the early civil rights movement. Big didn't survive their arrest in the South, so Sid assumed the fatherly responsibility for raising Willy. Willy is now courting Cynthia (Shela Evans), Sid's housekeeper. Sid and Willy have been rocked by recent events. Sid is in a wheelchair because of a recent mugging; he wants revenge. Willy's in a funk because Cynthia returned the ring he gave her; he wants the girl. Cynthia, the toughest of the trio, is trying to balance her religious faith and her seeming lack of faith in people.

The play has an endearing quality, fueled especially by the fine performances of Spina and Francis. Spina is very believable as a reminder of an earlier generation of cabbies (before the turbans arrived) as well as of lefties (back in the labor-organizing days before the anti-war sixties and long
before the politically correct nineties). He seems genuinely to enjoy the role. Francis renders Willy's character with great integrity: anxious and aggressive but nonetheless smart, reflective and sensitive, he seems to draw on fresh, unpredictable sources.

Stephen Mantin is described as an emerging playwright. His work reveals promising talent, an interesting perspective and still a few rough edges. With the understanding that they don't undo the good work on display here, I'll mention a few:
  • The opening scene, in which Willy briefly comes to Sid's apartment, has no purpose other than to aid the playwright's exposition.
  • Humor is occasionally introduced unnecessarily, inappropriately and not particularly successfully as when Sid tells Cynthia he's a card-carry Jew and then supplies a list of ways in which he acts Jewish
  • The character development sometimes seems to rely on a shorthand that doesn't tell us much. This is particularly noticeable in Cynthia, with Mantin and director Martha Pinson relying heavily on "dat Carribean ting." Background material notes that this is the first time the playwright has written a strong female character, which perhaps accounts for some of the relative weakness in Cynthia, and consequently in Evans's performance.)
Notwithstanding, Chain Lightning Theatre is to be commended for nurturing and encouraging this playwright's work; it deserves the attention.

The sets are in keeping with Sid's life: basic yet quite personal. A cityscape scrim lightly accentuated by some signs and images drawn from the Lower East Side time capsule, together with some thoughtfully designed lighting, complement the action without competing with it.

Note that a show previously seen at this charming little Off-Off-Broadway House, Beyond the Horizon is scheduled for another run at an as yet unknown Off-Broadway house.

by Stephen Mantin 
Directed by Martha Pinson 
with Anthony Spina, Rik Francis and Shela Evans 
Set and Costume Design by Meganne George 
Lighting Design by Scott Clyve 
Connelly Theatre, 220 East 4th Street (212) 803-5476 
Opened April 26, 1998 
Reviewed by Les Gutman April 27, 1998

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