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Sunday, 18 September 2016 18:40

Carroll Gardens Grows Heavy with Plot

Well-to-do friends clashing over hidden resentments and jealousies while dining is a common scenario in the contemporary American theatre. Donald Margulies won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2000 for Dinner with Friends, which focused on romantic entanglements, and Ayad Akhtar won in 2013 for Disgraced, which also addressed issues of Islam-inspired and anti-Islamic prejudice. To wrap up a year of smash-hits, the 16th Street Theater is producing the world premiere of A. Zell Williams’s Carroll Gardens, a “comedy” of the same genre which is about an interracial childhood friendship in working-class Stockton, and how it changes when one of the parties becomes a New York creative professional. Williams commented that theatre is bereft of the experience of today’s young African-Americans, and perhaps in an attempt to compensate for not seeing his concerns addressed elsewhere, he overloads his play with plot points, and exposition. However, he also has a very strong director in Ann Filmer, the 16th Street Theater’s artistic director, and a more than capable cast.

The story begins in 1993, when Davis (played as a child by Davu Smith) is visiting the home of Robby (played as a child by Rowan Moxley) for the first time. Robby is new to town and doesn’t have many friends yet, but he just made one in Davis by beating up his bully. Davis isn’t sure what to make of Robby: though they are only ten, Robby’s deceased mother forced him to read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and he uses terms such as “cultural appropriation,” yet Robby, who is white, totally fails to recognize what the other kids mean by calling Davis an “oreo” and thinks ending feuds is as simple as telling his adversaries he doesn’t feel like fighting anymore. Still, they bond by introducing each other to Nirvana and The Coup, and though Davis is bemused by Robby, they genuinely like each other.

Flash forward to Davis’s thirtieth birthday, and things are no longer so warm. Davis (Gregory Geffard) hasn’t responded to any of Robby’s attempts to contact him in years, and Robby (Andy Lutz) mostly stopped trying until right before announcing that he will be visiting Davis’s new apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. While Davis is now an up-and-coming screenwriter, Robby still dresses like a teenager, apparently has no occupation other than selling weed, and still spouts leftist dogma. Davis’s girlfriend, image-conscious Pilates instructor Quinlan (Alex Fisher), does not care for Robby’s uncouthness, and Davis is getting irritated with him, too, when a confluence of events reminds him of how strangled he feels by the upper-class liberalism, trendiness, and materialism of his new environment. Quinlan genuinely loves him, and Robby’s jealous interference in their lives prompts more than just a culture clash, but on the eve of his total transition into adulthood, Davis is forced to ask himself what he truly wants.

There is another couple present who Davis and Quinlan are friends with. Deepti (Minita Gandhi, Leena Kurishingal later in the run) is an Indian-American OB-GYN and the kind of person who thinks declaring “you can tell that injera bread was created to go with lambs raised on African grass” could be anything other than obnoxious. Her boyfriend and Davis’s director, Jamie (Brian J. Hurst), is a politically correct conscious-raising-type who somehow manages to say something casually racist with every breath, and Davis suspects he has outgrown him, too. Williams has drawn his characters in great detail, and Filmer chose well in casting actors who pick up all the details he supplies them with. As the child Davis, Smith’s incredulity at Moxley’s Robby is adorable, and as the adult Robby, Lutz’s clumsy attempts to get along with Quinlan’s Fisher are hilariously uncomfortable.

 

The problem with Carroll Gardens is that Williams creates too many complications. Davis must not only decide whether it is possible to continue his relationship with Robby, but also whether he wants to continue on with Quinlan and Brian, all for different reasons. While it is understandable for Williams to want to put him under pressure, the defining traits of each character are hammered on a few too many times. Carroll Gardens does, however, have two saving graces. The first is that, in Geffard’s hands, Davis does not come across as weak, but as disillusioned and somewhat disappointed. The script’s other strength is that Quinlan is a fully-developed, sympathetic character, who has her own concerns about their new lifestyle. Fisher captures a great deal of conflict and nuance in her performance, and is able to wrest an equal position in the play to Geffard and Lutz. Joanna Iwanicka has supplied the 16th St with another fine, naturalistic set, which, with just a few touches, suggests a converted space being occupied by people whose income is being almost entirely eaten up by their rent. Would that Williams had left just a few more details to his other collaborators, but what he has written is respectable, and the inaugural production is an ideal telling of the story.

Recommended

Playing through October 15 at the 16th Street Theater, 6420 16th Street, Berwyn, Illinois. Running time is two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $20, with discounts for Berwyn residents and groups. Free parking is provided in the lot at 16th and Gunderson.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" is one of my favorite comedies. 

 

Simon so perfectly captures the dynamics of a new couple moving in together as newlyweds and the pressures that begin to erode or test their love as soon as they move in. Cory and Paul's lack of money for a proper New York apartment presents all sorts of great comedy as they end up in a sixth floor walk up with a hole in the skylight and no heat or bathtub in the dead of winter.

 

Alex Fisher, as the young bride has a great frenetic and appropriately sexy, horny energy as she is faced with challenge after challenge to please her new husband who is a temporarily broke new lawyer. 

 

Colin Sphar, as her husband is funny in places but by the time he gets to his drunk scene, which has a lot of good physical comedy in it by him, we hear a full out lisp in his portrayal that distracts from his performance. The kissing and hugging chemistry between these two is not as white hot as you'd expect in roles that were originally played in the film by super sexy Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. 

 

The scene-stealers in this production turn out to be in the two mature character actors Sarah Minton, as Cory's aging but game for anything single mother and their upstairs, crazy neighbor played by Michael Pascas. 

 

Minton and Pascas are so good at their comic timing and so full of rich character and chemistry we ended up rooting for them to get together more than we were hoping for Cory and Paul, the leads, to STAY together. 

 

Also, Randolph Johnson, as the ATT phone installer, has an adorable, compassionate, calming quality that helps ground the piece every time he enters the scene.

 

The set design is great, with each part of the aging apartment clearly visible and very realistic.

 

Overall the play, which is long and includes two ten minute intermissions, has a lot of good energy and fun, especially if you grew up back in the day when the new wife was supposed to make everything nice and happy at home while the new husband goes out into the world to have all the fun and challenge of a real job.

 

“Barefoot in the Park” is being performed at The Athenaeum through November 1st. For tickets, performance times and other show info, visit www.athenaeumtheatre.org.  

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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