First and foremost is Storefront Church, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley; an unpredictable and unexpected rumination on faith, morality, economics and community, which leads to a confrontation between a handful of unlikely, disparate characters in the small storefront church of the title. Funny, provocative and touching, it is, in fact, an early contender for best play of the season, as far as I’m concerned, and it really deserves a transfer to Broadway. Certainly the audience reaction would confirm that. Here’s hoping it may be in the works—replete with as much of its original cast as possible: Bob Dishy, Giancarlo Esposito, Zach Grenier, Ron Cephus Jones, Jordan Lage and Tonya Pinkins.
Next is Tom Gualtieri’s That Play: A Solo Macbeth. The versatile actor and co-adapter (with director Heather Hill) has turned the tragedy of the political schemer, the wife who runs him and the witches and ghosts who haunt him into a fairly sprightly affair, replete with pauses for wry commentary and a little audience participation—well, cooperation at any rate. The discursive chattiness put me in mind, of all things, of Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare (the only book anyone ever needs for a quick-dose guide to understanding everything that comes up in clear, concise, conversational prose). The piece has a limited performance schedule, but it keeps getting extended and of this writing has a few weeks left. An even longer life in New York would be nice, but this also strikes me as a little tour de force that would do well in the UK (presented, say, by an institutional theatre with numerous playing spaces, including an amenable small one, like, say, the National; or prominently featured in a Fringe festival or venue)…and that might also have a life beyond Mr. Gualtieri’s own performance. Something to consider, anyway. And market accordingly…?
Lost in Staten Island, recently closed at La Mama, is the third installment of what has so-far been a bi-annual, auto-biographical series called Tales of Modern Living in which writer-performer Richard Sheinmel dramatizes signature moments in his life to be played out by him (as a character re-dubbed Mitch Mitchell) and a small ensemble of supporting actors, two of whom have appeared in each to play recurring roles—specifically those of his life partner (Mick Hilgers) and mother (Wendy Merritt). This third installment is about the day he spent with his Mom on Staten Island, arranging for the cremation of his younger brother Robby (Chris Orbach in flashbacks and a few imagined visitations), who suffered from severe Asperger’s syndrome and eventually committed suicide.
It’s easy to see why the series has earned such a following. Sheinmel is an amiable presence and he has the rare ability to write about his recent life and with enough “omniscient” objectivity to retain a sense of himself as an idiosyncratic, flawed character. And he writes about simple—yet not so simple—human problems. He’s aided and abetted by composer-lyricist Clay Zambo a musical theatre writer who provides (mostly but not entirely) commentary songs to highlight particular themes and turning points; and it’s musical material of an unusually high literacy and sophistication for a small, upstairs cabaret space in a very downtown locale. His energy as a songsmith and Shienmel’s as a storyteller are a good match and a good contrast for each other.
If there’s any caveat I have it’s that Sheinmel delivers a little too much minutiae in the cause of “keepin’ it real” and giving us the tiny passing moments of dropped beats, hiccups of parenthetical realization, objects handed back and forth etc.—existing for no reason other than passing identification—and almost all of them could be trimmed away. We’re with him on the verisimilitude train right from the start—he doesn’t need to “sell us” any further—and ironically, the little “assurances” of authenticity pull us out of the narrative, because they pull focus from the thematic spine.
But as those are small moments, it’s likewise a small caveat. I can see where this series could stand a commercial production, at least in a cabaret setting like the Triad, and, if Sheinmel’s life gives him enough material, I can see it becoming an annually (or semi-annually?) refreshed institution. Knowing Clay Zambo as I do, I’m pretty sure his well won’t run dry in a hurry…
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