2006_07_arts_mitf.jpgThe Midtown International Theatre Festival, which opened this week and runs through August 6, is at only 2 venues and has a far smaller number of shows in its lineup than does the Fringe Festival, but that makes it more manageable, a great warm-up, if you will, to the upcoming binge that will sprawl out over most of lower Manhattan and eat every good theatre lover’s schedule alive. This weekend, Gothamist brings you mini reviews of 5 very different shows in the festival: The Girls of Summer; Where Three Roads Meet; The Siblings; Love, Punky; and AfterWords (which is actually a set of three short plays). Check out the festival website for these shows' schedules, as well as to see the other shows on tap. As always, the opinions expressed below are the reviewer’s alone, not Gothamist’s.

Despite the “international” tag, the lineup does seem fairly New York-dominated. However, the LA African American Repertory Co. has crossed the country for the occasion, bringing Layon Gray’s The Girls of Summer, a suspenseful and provocative historical fiction piece about the mysterious death of the female coach of a black women’s baseball team in the 1940s. I’ll admit I automatically think of the 1992 movie A League of Their Own when women’s baseball comes up, and there were bits here that brought to mind that flick, but a more apt reference is to Charles Fuller’s intense Pulitzer prizewinner, A Soldier’s Play, which this one resembles a great deal both stylistically and thematically. A young reporter (played by the playwright) has decided to get to the bottom of the coach’s death, so he interviews most of the team members, who tell their stories and the teams’ in flashback, bit by bit, until the disturbing but not too surprising truth comes out in the end. The large cast of ball players is fantastic, crackling with conviction and energy to spare, and to ensure that they don’t seem like the stereotypes they easily could have been. The play was shortened to fit the MITF requirements, and in my opinion could have been tightened further still in some areas, particularly to omit the modern-day frame, in which another reporter is looking into the story, and meets a strange character who hangs out at the ballfield and apparently knew all the girls once upon a time; their interaction adds nothing but confusion to the show. But even with that and the obligatory but underdeveloped racism theme, The Girls of Summer is both frequently compelling to watch, and intriguing enough to keep you thinking about it for some time afterwards.

A riveting, suspenseful plot is not one of the strengths of John Carter’s Where Three Roads Meet (unless you find the history of psychotherapy endlessly fascinating or know absolutely nothing about it yet), but this production has numerous other things going for it, the first of which is a first-rate cast led by Robb Hurst as Freud and Andrew Firda as Karl Jung. Hirst’s Freud is startlingly warm and likeable, which sets up a nice contrast with Firda’s visibly tortured but determined Jung. The women in the cast, unfortunately, are confined to background roles, though when they do get to have their say they shine: Kathryn Merry is the definition of sweet-natured as Emma Jung, while Emily Fink exudes a radiant aura of naïveté as Jung’s libidinous, formerly “crazy” patient Sabina, and Elena McGhee gives a quietly smoldering performance as Freud’s worshipful but wise sister-in-law Minna. The play follows the development of the field of psychology through the prism of Freud and Jung’s complicated personal and intellectual relationship (despite the “three roads,” it’s not clear what the third colleague, the Hungarian Sándor Ferenczi, or a fourth, Otto Gross, are really doing for the play). The show speeds through the years, with the actors reading stage directions and time indicators, but that tends to make it feel like it's going slowly, like a recitation of historical events, rather than freeing up space to really explore the underlying philosophical-psychic conflicts that are of more dramatic interest. Fortunately, the cast’s talent wins out with their sensitive yet thoughtful portrayals of archetypically complex characters, to make the long-ago passion and striving come alive.
(after the jump, reviews of The Siblings; Love, Punky; and AfterWords)

2006_07_arts_siblings.jpgThe Siblings is, as the tagline puts it, an especially “grim” version of the Grimm fairytale of Hansel and Gretel: it shares its bleak beginning, in which a woodcutter’s family is starving, so that the mother suggests that the children be taken to the woods and left alone to be lost and starved, but it doesn’t share the Grimm’s happy ending. Also, in this adaptation by Edward Elefterion, the mother is the children’s actual mother, not a stepmother, which makes it all seem worse, and the reason she does what she does is that she claims to be following instructions she received from God in dreams (Gretel also hears from God, only He warns her about the mother’s plans). The whole family has a strange, almost willfully blind and literal religious faith that puts one in mind, more than once, of another story, this one far older: the Biblical tale of God’s test of Abraham, using Isaac as a live prop. The Siblings story gets a little sloppy and overly sensational, even for a fairytale, towards the end, reaching a little too far and falling short in its attempt to be truly chilling, but here again the acting is superb, and the Rabbit Hole Ensemble’s minimalist presentation, particularly the stark black and white lighting, works wonders in creating an appropriately harsh psychological atmosphere. Arthur Aulisi (also currently in Angel Mountain) is excellent as the haunted father and Kathryn Velvel Jones is creepy as the heartless, psychotic mother, but the two children (Paul Daily and Amanda Broomell) definitely carry the play with their nearly palpable terror and confusion. The Siblings raises some very uncomfortable questions and offers no answers, leaving you with plenty of food for thought and inspiration for your own dark dreams.

If you’re the sort who likes literary interpretations, Robin Hopkins’ Love, Punky could also be seen as a variation on a Biblical story – in this case, that of the New Testament sisters Mary and Martha – mixed with another age-old theme, the unavoidable problem of how to care for one’s parents in their old age. In this case, it’s just one parent (Mom) and she’s not all that old, but her feckless combination of alcoholism/smoking/promiscuity have created enough problems for her that when the play takes place, her body is betraying her: she’s in the hospital, and the title character (real name Jessica, though one senses that she’s Hopkins’ autobiographical stand-in, especially since Hopkins plays her) is being called home by her dutiful but bitter sister Maggie (Elise Rovinsky). As Punky/Jessica resists going in the present, alternating scenes have her and her mom tell about their past, their narratives punctuated by actual flashbacks that are frequently hilarious despite being sort of depressing – tomboyish Jessica grew up without many friends or trappings of normal middle-class family life, getting no emotional support from her mother; on the contrary, she had to provide her mother with it, and eventually also care for her in more tangible ways, as her alcoholism progressed and exacerbated her carelessness. Since it’s her story she’s telling, it’s not surprising that Hopkins, a former stand-up comic, is the stand-out member of the cast, though Michelle Sims has a great laconic, no-nonsense, defiant presence as Rosie (Mom). Emma Galvin, who plays the young Punky, shows her youth in some over-acted moments that grate on the viewer, but they don’t detract much from a story that overall is really well put together and paced. If you aren’t a fan of memoirs, especially of the hardscrabble childhood kind, this show isn’t for you, but others will admire the broad palette of emotions it evokes, and especially the lengths to which Hopkins must have gone to imagine her sister’s and mother’s sides of the story.

The tagline for AfterWords is that it gives you “three ways to say goodbye without ever having to say you’re sorry”; this doesn’t tell you much about the plays in advance, and once you see them it doesn’t quite seem to fit. Nonetheless, the plays do share a certain dark something that, combined, makes the collection more than the sum of its parts. In Marcus Davidson’s Cheesequake Revelations, “Sweetie” (Scott Lovelady) has brought his girl “Mandy” (Andi Teran) to a Jersey rest stop (the Cheesequake of the title), where all the clerks, like her, are pale and red-haired, and know Sweetie entirely too well. Mandy gets suspicious and finds out the sordid story of Sweetie’s history with Cheesequake, which is all well and over the top, but the result for her of having the knowledge is distressingly unfair. Both characters are hugely exaggerated, but in such a small dose they’re funny rather than annoying, as they would definitely be in a full-length play. The photographer in Edward Musto’s Shutterbug, played by David Lapkin, would have nodded sagely at hearing Sweetie’s story; he is notorious for being the one who always captures the disturbing pictures, like a woman jumping from a building on fire. Sadly, that aptitude seems to have brought a black cloud of bad luck into his personal life, as he tells in this monologue. It’s unclear why the story is being presented as a play, really; Lapkin is a good narrator, but Musto just has him delivering his sad tale while sitting at a small table and occasionally walking around the stage. Of course, with a play as opposed to a short story one is forced to really look at the character and hear him out, rather than block off the unpleasant bits or imagine things differently. Finally, both Sweetie and the photographer would sympathize with the Woman (Melinda Wade) in Dena Douglass’ A Transitory Feast, who has been laid low by a tragedy that we don’t learn of until well into the play. The whole idea might be a bit smarmy for some, but it’s beautifully acted (Adam McLaughlin plays the woman’s brother), and after so much sadness in the other two plays, the uplifting ending provides a welcome change of mood to accompany you out of the theater.

Photo from The Siblings by Jessica Baker.