Two New Plays and the Perils of Autobiography

The Little Flower of East Orange and Marcy in the Galaxy show why not everybody's life is worth dramatizing

Undefined even when most assertive, these figures can't hold center stage. Guirgis, having invented Danny, actively shifts the focus to Therese Marie, whose elaborate history—the physically abused hearing child of deaf alcoholic parents—serves as a tenuous excuse for both the play and Danny's inexplicably intense rage. The highly specialized details of what ostensibly infuriates Danny only come out late in the evening and occurred decades before his birth; of his mother's marriage and his upbringing, we're told next to nothing. His grandfather, whom he never knew, is a significant presence onstage, his father barely mentioned. And although Danny declares at the outset, "This is my story," the evening is full of scenes he couldn't have witnessed or in many cases known anything about, like those involving a sturdy nurse (Liza Colón-Zayas) and a caustic-tongued orderly (David Zayas), both supplied with convenient hearts of gold. Lacking Guirgis's family-therapy impetus, Shayne's musical fends off Marcy's stasis alternately with feisty attempts at intervention in flashback from her mother and sister, and caustic interjections from the equally adrift pair of female friends at the next table (Mary-Pat Green and Janet Carroll), whom the waiter neglects in favor of the hapless heroine.

Stage rage: Michael Shannon, Ellen Burstyn, and Elizabeth Canavan in The Little Flower of East Orange.
Monique Carboni
Stage rage: Michael Shannon, Ellen Burstyn, and Elizabeth Canavan in The Little Flower of East Orange.

Details

The Little Flower of East Orange
By Stephen Adly Guirgis
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
212-967-7555

Marcy in the Galaxy
By Nancy Shayne
The Connolly Theatre
220 East 4th Street
212-352-3101

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Philip Seymour Hoffman directs Guirgis's play, as always, with plow-ahead energy and a canny aptitude for switching on actors' internal mechanisms; he has the advantage here of a script somewhat stronger on interaction than Guirgis's usual loose anthology of actors' party pieces. Burstyn, in a mainly reactive role, blends frailty and gutsiness with the practiced ease of a master chef whipping up his signature sauce. Shannon tackles his florid outbursts with equally consummate skill, particularly well abetted by Zayas, Arthur French as a genial elderly cop, and Elizabeth Canavan as Danny's equally overwrought sister. Matters are less exciting at Marcy, where the steady, quiet exactitude of director Jack Cummings III's approach, so useful in scripts that carry stronger dramatic weight, makes this already bland material seem downright sedated. Champlin works hard, with touching results; still, Green, Carroll, and particularly the vivacious Ralston—all skilled hands blessed with more assertive roles—can't help but steal the evening from her.

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