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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
From Riverdale to Riverhead

By Summer Banks

It's not good to keep it all bottled up inside. I'm releasin'. . .— Stella, in reference to her passing gas.
(Clockwise from top left) Bess Rous, Catherine Curtin, Sharon Angela and Angelica Torn in From Riverdale to Riverhead
(Photo: George H. McLaughlin)
A young woman walks heel to toe onstage, bending each joint slowly and carefully, as the strains of early 90s pop fill the theater. She's alone in the spotlight and her form is carefully measured against the dark stage, foreshadowing the action about to unfold.

This spotlight against a darkened stage serves as a haunting refrain in Studio Dante's world premier production of From Riverdale to Riverhead by Anastasia Trania. This dark tragi-comedy is unabashedly theatrical and entertaining, and as it is frequently punctuated by various strings of expletives, such as "you sick cunt!" makes for a rather naughty night out. But when Rosie's spotlight refrain returns to remind the audience that this play is about more than just ridiculous, HBO-worthy bickering, the doggedly one-note production is unable to fully realize the balance between over-the-top hijinks comedy and the bitter realizations of a family long since fallen apart at the seams.

The play takes place almost entirely in the four seats of a sedan on the way from the Bronx to the Long Island prison. Louise, her two sisters Stella and Fannie, and her daughter Rosie, are all going to visit Louise's son who's being held in prison on a prohibitively high bail. The trip spins toward a surprising conclusion but it becomes clear moments into the play that the destination is not half as important as the damage that can be done along the way.

The journey basically serves as a convenient excuse for all four women to lash into each other about pretty much everything in their lives. Louise (an expressive Angelica Torn) is a hypochondriac whiner who pouts and throws tantrums with an unbelievable dexterity. Stella (a vivid Sharon Anglea with impeccable comic timing) goes straight for the throat with barbed insults and profanity that would make a sailor blush. Fannie (a solid, remarkably believable Catherine Curtin) is more brute in her argumentation, but also remains more stable, most notably flipping off the "bitches" that cut them off of the highway. The quiet Rosie (a floaty, androgynous Bess Rous) often comes out the winner because she simply stays out of the fray, but even she is capable of joining in; after all, she was raised with these women.

Th women's preferred form of familial interaction is synchronized yelling, although smoking and sucking on candy also feature prominently. This emphasis on screaming unfortunately limits the play's range to one note: a guttural yell that begins to get tiring after about half an hour. Although Rosie often provides much needed breaks from the cat fights of her elders, even her rather morbid reflections on life begin to seem just as dramatic as the more petty arguments.

Director Nick Sandow paints the action of the play in broad, bright slashes of paint across the stage. The actors' movements are carefully exaggerated and mannered, creating a overall sense of a heightened reality, unfortunately dissociated from our own.

Even the straight man, Ken Forman as the Guard, Detective and Radio Personality seems self-consciously theatrical when performing such everyday tasks as giving directions or asking the women if they want help. It would be interesting to see how the more poignant moments of the play would turn out if the nuances of the relationships were explored more closely. In their current incarnation, they seem more like the inevitable fates of a Greek tragedy or the sensationalist headlines of a tabloid than something that could happen to your next-door neighbor. The theatricality robs these striking moments of their emotional content and cripples the play's momentum and ability to engage the audience.

Designed in a fine 19th century style, Studio Dante's space in Chelsea exudes an intoxicating essence of glamour. The stage itself—pocket sized though it may be— perfectly fits the play's ingenious set by Studio Dante's co-artisitic director Victoria Imperioli. Ms. Imperioli's sets have helped to make this young company (their first production was Baptism by Fire in 2004) Studio Dante, one of the more unique theaters in Manhattan.