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A CurtainUp Review

I got two daughters I gotta put through college on no pension. This letter says I got two weeks ta clear my office an' get my things. I'm gonna ignore it. I'm gonna be here on my fiftieth birthday, Mister Breems. I'm gonna blow out fifty-one candles, one for good luck..— Newton, to the thirty-five year-old who's been hired by a large corporation to fire long-time employees like Newton, before they can collect either social security or the company pensions they counted on to hold onto their homes and see their kids to college.
Saidah Arrika Ekulona and Kevin Geer in Unconditional
(Photo: Monique Carbon)
As in Guinea Pig Solo, his previous play for the LABrynth Theater Company, Brett C. Leonard has written a play developed with an album-filling number of snapshot scenes (17 for each act). The reasons the people in these snapshots belong in the same album is sometimes dramatized without any words, other times with longish monologues— nearly always involving racial issues, sex and loneliness.

review continues below

Director Mark Wing-Davey's staging adds a dramatic edge by putting the audience members all around the stage and shifting the downstage and upstage view from scene to scene. Thus you might find yourself within breathing distance of the actors in one scene, then see them further upstage in the next, depending on which side of the stage you're sitting on. If you're in the gallery on top of Mark Wendland's deceptively simple set, you'll be watching like someone leaning out a second floor windows (there are some blind spots in these lower-priced gallery seats).

The clever linkage between the characters, the gritty dialogue and expertly performed interchanges makes one want to forgive some of the more strained, one-note, under-clarified aspects of these tales of New York (why, for example, are four of the five men attracted only to black or Nuyorican women?) In the same way, the set-up of the in-the-round staging build up a sense of intrigue since it makes you feel as if you and the people at the other side of the stage are going to see two different plays, like kids sharing space in an old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse. However, while the shifting set, sliding doors, and atmospheric lighting and music support this sense of something different being afoot, eventually the craftiness of this attempt to echo the sense of shifting perspectives feels overdone and, on occasion, even irritating.

Without a single reference to the title at any time, that "unconditional" may be seen as describing the unconditional love and loyalty that eludes so many people in their relationships. Leonard' thus seems to want his New York loners to represent everyone trying to deal with the obstacles society as well as they themselves have put in the way of their ability to connect with others and deal with life's problems.

While most of the stories focus on personal relationships, there's plenty of violence, including murder. The most significant situation relates to the insecurity that has in recent years made many American workers feel angry and betrayed. Unfortunately, dramatizing the plight of long-standing employees laid off before they can collect their hard-earned pensions through a a black man (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) comes off as forced, an authorial tool for pushing the racial button. Whitlock's performances as Newton is nevertheless impressively passionate.

The criss-crossing episodes through these nine New York lives begin with a scene in which the only words you hear are from a pulsating Willie King song. It's lit so dark that it's impossible to identify the two shadowy figures though there's no missing that we're witnessing a potential killing. This is followed by another pairing of characters, this one featuring a rambling often very funny monologue by a middle aged man (John Doman) addressed to a silent woman (played with stunning reserve by Saidah Arika Ekulona). The ensuing scenes are mostly duets— some flashing by, several originating with postings at internet social networking sites, too few really fleshed out. Contributing to another violent interlude there's a gangsterish African-American (Chris Chalk), the only male to have a Caucasian girl friend (Anna Chlumsky).

The playwright's ability to juggle all these acts of violence, despair and romantic connections is most effective in a scene with three beds on stage —all occupied. Episodes featuring LABrynth regular Elizabeth Rodriguez also work well, especially a Starbucks scene during which she confides her need for connection to a friend (Yolonda Ross) who happens to be the unhappy wife of Newton, the downsized corporate employee ("I'm a no-longer-eighteenyear-old bank teller with about two-an'-a-half eggs left. You got kids, you got Newton. I got assholes on the subway, I got an asshole ex-husband and I got that asshole cheatin' exboyfriend. . . but you still feel it's gonna come to an end, ya know?")

Even though the three-way thrust staging probably worked better in theory than it does in actual execution, Wendland's set is nevertheless interesting and made more so thanks to Japhy Weideman's mood enhancing lighting, Bart Fasbender's bombastic music and sound effects.

In closing, LABrynth which is to be commended for bringing us so many on target plays about urban life, should be spanked for ignoring the need for the theater to actively support a smoke-free environment and avoid leaning on cigarettes for character development and atmosphere. I realize that cigarettes aren't glamorized here (shades of those famous double-lit cigs in Now Voyager) but their excessive use smacks of lazy playwriting. I know too that the cigarettes used were herbal. However, not being exposed to cancer doesn't mean all that rising smoke, especially towards the end, didn't make some people feel uncomfortable. One friend who saw the show told me that his sinuses were affected through the next morning.

To read Curtainup's review of Mr. Leonard's Guinea Pig Solo, also produced by LABrynth, go here

By Brett C. Leonard
Directed by Mark Wing-Davey
Cast: Chris Chalk (Spike), Anna Chlumsky (Missy), John Doman (Keith), Saidah Arrika Ekulona (Lotty), Kevin Geer (Gary), Trevor Long (Daniel), Elizabeth Rodriguez (Jessica) , Yolonda Ross (Tracie), Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (Newton)
Sets: Mark Wendland
Costumes: Mimi O'Donnell
Lighting: Japhy Weideman
Sound: Bart Fasbender
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission
LAByrinth Theater Company at LuEsther Hall, Public Theater 425 Lafayette Street, or (212) 967-7555.
From 2/07/08; opening 2/18/08; closing 3/09/08. Rregular seating, at both ends of the stage, $50, Gallery seating on raised platforms at either side of the stage, $35.
Tuesdays and Sundays at 7:00 p.m., Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Sundays at 7:00 p.m.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at Feb. 17th matinee

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