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Aisle Say On The Square: The Summer Sleepers

Aisle Say On The Square: The Summer Sleepers
Lili Taylor, Janeane Garofalo

Lili Taylor, Janeane Garofalo

I have very little memory of the first NYC production (1992) of the acclaimed play Marvin’s Room (1990). I have an only-vague impression of finding it an uneasy mix of sincerity and near-surrealism that…well, I don’t remember whether I liked it or not. I think I understood why so many other people seemed to cotton to it, but I personally wasn’t feelin’ the love. Or if I was, it just refused to stick. It may or may not be a barometer of anything that, despite the auspicious success of its first, fresh exposures, and a well-regarded film adaptation five years later, the play nonetheless vanished from public consciousness and the general repertoire of plays regularly performed, not long thereafter.

Jack DiFalco , Janeane Garofalo

Jack DiFalco , Janeane Garofalo

Whether it was unjustly neglected or too much an artifact of its era to “stay with us,” in the manner of How I Learned to Drive and Wit is impossible to know for sure, but I’m happy to report that the current Roundabout revival on Broadway makes a decent case for its reconsideration. The play concerns two sisters, Bessie (Lili Taylor), saintly caretaker of their dotty aunt Ruth (Celia Watson) and father, who has been dying by increments (out of our sight, behind the walls of an upstage room) for 20 years—who has now, herself, been diagnosed with leukemia—and Lee (Janeane Garafolo), a wisecracking, psychologically unstable free spirit who has not helped with the caretaking; and who can’t control her criminally inclined teenage son Hank (Jack DeFalco), both of them being somewhat less mature than her younger, studious son, Charlie (Luca Padovan). But in coming to help Bessie cope in the wake of her diagnosis, Lee and her sons are exposed to Bessie’s unquestioning acceptance of them, and instant love of nephews she has barely if at all known previously. And transformative, light bearing things start to happen in the midst of ever-darkening prospects.
Celia Weston, Lili Taylor

Celia Weston, Lili Taylor

Why should the play now strike me as more resonant than previously? Combination of things. (1) I’m not who I was; older, different, more evolved, my world a hugely wider canvas than it was back then; and (2) Director Anne Kaufman’s production is unambiguously “realistic,” if that’s the word. Again, this just may be a trick of memory, but what I recall as an occasional incongruity of tone has been eradicated. Ms. Kaufman has deftly located the sweet spot that balances comedy and pathos, without sacrificing either. It’s the kind of balance Mike Nichols used to be famous for, and it ain’t easy.
But of course, the illusion is making it look easy, and abetted by a swell cast, in particular Ms. Taylor, Ms. Kaufman gives Marvin’s Room a greater sense of literary permanence than it has had before. And that’s not unimpressive either.
Karen Pittman, Namir Smallwood

Karen Pittman (foreground), Namir Smallwood (background).Photo by Jeremy Daniel

I cannot, online, locate the source of this aphorism (I remember being told it was George Bernard Shaw), but whoever said it was wise nonetheless, when he advised that, in the dramatization of ideological conflict, you give your villain, or anyway, your antagonist, the best arguments. That’s almost literally what’s going on in Dominique Morriseau’s Pipeline (at the Mitzi Newhouse in Lincoln Center).

Morocco Omari, Namir Smallwood

Morocco Omari, Namir Smallwood.Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Put over-simply, it’s the story of Omari (Namir Smallwood) a high school age, inner city black kid with a history of behavior problems, who has just become a third-strike offender when he pushed a teacher. When the play starts, he is running off, leaving behind his girlfriend (Heather Velasquez)—and leaving his mother Nya (Karen Pittman), who is also a teacher, to find him and then figure out how to navigate school and legal authorities…and her ex-husband, Omari’s father, Xavier (Morocco Omari), a white-collar professional who thinks it’s time to be the hands on single parent. Collateral but related drama involves Laurie (Tasha Lawrence), a white colleague of Nya’s, whose tough “survivalist” technique gets unexpectedly tested; and school security man Dun (Jaime Lincoln Smith), who is all too aware of being just one man in a house of many doors.

Heather Velazquez, Namir Smallwood

Heather Velazquez, Namir Smallwood. Photo by Jeremy Daniel

As you can divine, Pipeline is not precisely a story with antagonists—more a collection of disparate, desperate characters—and their differences are less strictly ideological than bone of emotional/intellectual navigation…but what holds is your being presented with a character you think you know, within a familiar setting…and then as the drama digs deeper, you find that under the surface lie characters a lot more complex than you imagined they were; more articulately assertive and/or defended than you thought they were, more able to see the other side than the other side might have assumed, which makes disagreement anything but clear cut, or outcome inevitable. Especially when it’s a layer withheld—or a layer revealed—that makes all the difference and distinguishes what’s true from what’s truer.
Because you only get to deeper layers by starting at the surface, Pipeline takes a little while to start cooking; but once it does, the boil only gets hotter. Caveat? The argumentative layering is so comprehensively written, the characters so good at anticipating self-evident rebuttal and circumventing it with surprising perception, that you can find yourself a bit too consciously aware of an author at work, not only in the service of covering complex ground, but ennobling the kinds of characters who aren’t often dramatized with such well-rounded dignity, particularly in these situations. But then again, in infusing familiar territory with so much fresh insight, it’s probably natural to err on the side of Shavian thoroughness.
Under the direction of Lileana Blain-Cruz, the cast is uniformly splendid in making this a forceful, full-blooded and very rewardingly human experience.


David Spencer is an award-winning composer-lyricist, lyricist-librettist, author and musical theatre teacher. He has written music and lyrics for the Richard Rodgers Development Award-winning musical The Fabulist, which also contributed to his winning a Kleban lyrics award and several Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla Theatre Foundation grants. He is also lyricist-librettist for two musicals with composer Alan Menken: Weird Romance (WPA 1992, York 2004) and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which had its sold out, extended world premiere in Montreal in Summer 2015; cast album release soon. He made his professional debut in 1984 with the English Adaptation of La Bohéme at the Public Theatre; and he has since written music and lyrics for Theatreworks/USA’s all-new, award-winning Young Audience versions of The Phantom of the Opera (1996) and Les Misérables (1999) (book and direction for both by Rob Barron). Currently he is writing book, music and lyrics for a musical based on the iconic Russian novel The Golden Calf. Spencer’s published books are the Alien Nation novel Passing Fancy (Pocket, 1994), The Musical Theatre Writer’s Survival Guide (Heinemann, 2005, a regularly reprinted industry standard) and the script of Weird Romance (Samuel French, 1993). He is on faculty and teaches at the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop and has taught at HB Studio, the Workshop Studio Theater and Goldsmith’s College in London. His primary professional affiliations are BMI, The Dramatists Guild and The International Association of Media Tie-in Writers.

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