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2006_02_arts_lennynlou.jpgIf people are going to continue to follow the age-old adage of “write what you know,” my guess is that, based on demographics, we’re going to see a lot more plays about middle-aged people having to deal with their even aging, weakening parents. Obviously that’s not a new dynamic, but with boomers as the ones now going through it, you can bet they’ll be more vocal about the experience than past age cohorts. You can also bet that a good deal of what they say will be sensitive and fairly gentle – this is after all the generation that enshrined political correctness. Refreshingly, Ian Cohen’s new play Lenny and Lou, about two brothers and their senile mother, is none of that; rather, it lives up entirely to the tradition of “brutal theater” that 29th Street Rep prides itself on. There are a few quieter, semi-serious segments, but for the most part, even if it isn’t quite as offensive as all the “for mature audiences only” disclaimers make it out to be, the show is a pretty nonstop assault on quaint notions of good taste – and, I should add, a very funny, well-acted assault at that.

The opening scene is one of the best, and handily sets the pace and tone for the rest of the play. It’s 5AM and Lenny (David Mogentale) has just barged into his brother’s place in a panic because he’s afraid he (Lenny) just killed their mother. As Lenny relates the story of the bizarre phonecall she made to him earlier, demanding bananas, and how he decided to go buy her some despite the hour, only to get to her apartment and find her in a sleep that won’t break until he starts screaming that he’s Eichmann come after her, Lou (Todd Wall) listens exasperatedly, the weary range of expressions shifting across his face telling a story of their own about how used to this sort of thing he is. As Lenny, Mogentale is a bundle of nervous energy very suited to the role: Lenny is, despite being married and late-thirties-ish, hardly a grown-up; he’s more like a little boy with ADD who has to be at the center of everything going on around him. He has a part-time job but really wants to be a rock star, much to the annoyance of his wife, Julie (Heidi James), who has to support him financially and protect him from the wrath of her macho Italian brothers, plus she has a lot of issues of her own. Lou, meanwhile, has a real job and seems mature, especially in comparison with his brother, but he can’t get laid so he still feels and is perceived as less than a man. Not surprisingly, this makes him a lot less naturally likeable than his eager, confident puppy dog of a brother, a charmer who has been able to get what he wants out of women from a young age, as we find out soon enough.
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Adding to the emotional cocktail for both guys is their relationship with their mother, which is complicated to say the least, and not just because she has Alzheimer’s and is always forgetting that they’re her sons. Unfortunately, we don’t see near enough of Fran (expertly portrayed by Suzanne Toren), because – spoiler alert! – when Lou goes to check on her after Lenny’s aborted early-morning visit, he snaps after having to hear her complaints and confused questions one too many times, and he smothers her with a pillow. He’s upset after he does this, but mostly because he’s scared of getting caught: his mother’s daily caretaker, Sabrina (Carolyn Mitchell Smith) will arrive soon. He dispatches her quickly, but then Lenny arrives and the two have to come to terms with what has just transpired, which they do in large part by hearkening back to the past, going through boxes of old stuff and talking about what it was like growing up with Fran as a mom, since she was evidently far from a typical Jewish mother. The reminiscing process isn’t the kind of deep, reflective coming to terms that inevitably forms the core of other plays with these kinds of family issues, but it’s better that way– Lenny and Lou is “madcap” in a good sense, rushing pell-mell through absurdities and offenses. Actually, apart from one scene of mock explicit sex, the play isn’t as willfully inappropriate and “brutal” as one might fear after reading advance material on it: mostly the brutality is in the honesty of the brothers’ admissions of how they feel about their mother, and such honesty is plenty welcome at a time when false claims of sympathy and good feeling seem to be the order of the day. The brothers aren’t heartless by any means, and Mogentale, Wall, and James all flesh their characters out beyond the stereotypes they first seem to be (the multifaceted result is even sometimes a little too strong, making the show lose a little momentum). But overall the effect of their dilemmas, which increase as the past is dredged up, is one of hilarity and gleeful absurdity that makes what would be a ponderous, melodramatic situation in other hands into a highly enjoyable performance.

Lenny and Lou is at 29th Street Rep., 212 W. 29th St., through Feb. 26. Shows are Thurs.-Mon. 8pm; tickets at Smarttix, Fridays pay-what-you-can.