Theater

Shaking the Family Tree

For some, the secrets of genealogy are just a short commute away. At least that's the case for the Grants, a working-class Irish American clan with a suspiciously sparse family tree. Set largely in Yonkers, Kate Moira Ryan and Kim D. Sherman's musical Leaving Queens (Women's Project) revolves around independent-minded daughter Megan, a photographer recently returned from Kosovo who's shocked to find that her father has abandoned her mother. Curious about the gaps in her dad's history, and worried that she may be re-creating a similarly fuzzy relationship with her own son, she embarks on a photo journey back to the borough where it all began. A windfall stash of undeveloped negatives documenting her immigrant roots conveniently saves her a few trips on the No. 7 train.

Always benign though rarely memorable, Ryan's largely autobiographical book struggles to spin an Aristotelian narrative when a few concentrated images would have sufficed. The Balkan preface is cringingly unnecessary, and the multiple plot contrivances guiding Megan to the truth of her past seem like an object lesson in remedial dramaturgy. But to Ryan's credit, she occasionally finds ways of neatly juxtaposing first-generation toil and sacrifice with second-generation progress in pursuing the American dream.

Lyrics, alas, aren't her forte. "The cost of a nation/Is a generation" illustrates how a penchant for obvious rhyme can cheapen noble sentiment. Though the words and music never quite settle on a working relationship (recitative alternates haphazardly with spoken dialogue and song), Sherman's score provides a lovely mix of piano and strings with Gaelic fiddle. Allison Narver directs with fluid assurance, eliciting unaffected performances and moving the action briskly along a set of well-deployed screen projections. The skillful production provides a contoured path for Ryan's backward meandering.—Charles McNulty


The Love Doctor

There are no bad guys in Amy Fox's Summer Cyclone (Ensemble Studio Theatre). Her characters radiate sweetness and good humor even in the midst of dark confusion. But their histories have been cut to fit a somewhat contrived love story, and you miss the scraps left out.

Lucia, a ripely appealing thirtysomething artist, meets Eugene, a med student, when she enrolls in a clinical trial to treat her breast cancer. Although it's a bit, well, irregular, she begins dating the kid. In their fumbling at this improbable pairing, they discover that both their mothers died of the cancer. As she undergoes chemo, Lucia is visited by her dead mom and living ex-husband; Eugene fends off his gabby doctor dad. All wrestle with feelings of guilt and impotency, and Lucia with fear. At a critical juncture, she begs Eugene to violate his ethics and sneak a peak at which drug she's been assigned.

For all this misery, Summer Cyclone breezes along with clever banter, wry humor, and charm. This operates whether Lucia lifts a champagne toast to her soon-to-be-lost breast or her ghostly mother enumerates one of her endless lists: "Six Reasons Not to Go to Coney Island With Your Doctor." Jenna Stern infuses Lucia with spirit and allure, and Johnny Giacalone makes Eugene likable as the puppyish doctor-in-training. Christine Farrell brings a sad, wry presence to the sardonic ghost, and William Wise blusters amusingly as the fond dad.

Throughout, director Nela Wagman creates a warm intimacy onstage, enhanced by Dean Gray's evocative background of flute, heartbeat, and medical beeps. Riding the Coney Island roller coaster could work as the metaphor for Lucia's feeling of being spun into chaos. But Summer Cyclone is just a little too neat.—Francine Russo


The Home Front

When a musical comedy called Suburb (York Theatre Company) is presented for the delectation of city dwellers, you'd assume the authors have some kind of spoof in mind. Co-creators David Javerbaum and Robert S. Cohen surprisingly confound expectations. But what they supply in the absence of satire is no take whatsoever—despite a few suburb-oriented ditties, one containing the (mocking?) line "Let's be part of it all/At the mall."

That's because examining the pros and cons of suburban life—an endeavor dating back at least to Eric Hodgins's 1946 novel, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House isn't what the collaborators are after. The four characters at the center of the story include a pregnant yuppie couple contemplating a move to a town called Suburb; a widower thinking about selling the Victorian house he's inhabited for 40 years; and a real estate agent named Rhoda (Alix Korey, sparkling) who serves as their go-between and wears leopard-spotted outfits that scream "predator."

As the marrieds bicker, the homeowner waffles over his resolve to jettison the past, and Rhoda wheedles nasally, Cohen and Javerbaum let it be known that their theme is how fear of change stymies personal growth. This might be a point worth making if the dramatis personae, which include a large population of urban and suburban types impersonated by four additional actors, weren't blandly tiresome and predictable.

First-rate songs would help, too, but none emerge from Cohen's melodies and the duo's lyrics. The two have listened to Stephen Sondheim's canon without understanding that it takes more than incessant rhyme to produce snazzy numbers. Their musical output, under Jennifer Uphoff Gray's smooth direction, does have one distinction: It may be the only show score ever written that contains the word "vomit."—David Finkle

 
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