Pall in the Family
Where does dramatizing everyday cruelty end and exacting that same cruelty on an audience begin? It’s a question to be pondered during one of the many portentous silences in The Last Barbecue (29th Street Rep), in which a Solondzian family gathers for a cookout, waiting for Godot in the form of Michelle, their neighbor and guest of honor. Exactly a year has passed since Michelle’s husband dropped dead while mowing the lawn, and it seems the titular fete is a “memorial barbecue”—a concept, as one character points out, that’s “nearly horrific.” So too this obtuse, carping clan: Smug, middle-aged oaf Ted (Leo Farley) alternately ignores or hollers at his bride, Jan (Barbara Myers). A household martyr, Jan pulls her upper lip into an idiot grin and coos soothingly even while Ted and their blowhard son, Barry (Peyton Thomas), nearly come to fisticuffs. Barry and his equally passive wife, Tammy (Moira MacDonald), think they’ve arrived early—the deck chairs are empty and sodas unopened—but it turns out the party is a painfully exclusive affair. Cue stultifying conversation, aggressive lack of interest between kin, contempt oozing from every banal exchange (“Did you guys play Frisbee?” “Where are the briquettes?”).
And, of course, those deafening silences, in which playwright Brett Neveu all but screams “Subtext!” and leaves the viewer to read between the (repetitive, staccato) lines. The minimalist production—two scenes, five characters, one yard—starves for meaning beyond its characters’ complacent misery. They’re stupid, self-pitying, and bent on revenge. They’re like malevolent cows. (Eyes cast up blankly and shoulders diffidently hunched, the capable Myers’s affect is definitively bovine.) Neveu’s relentless cattle drive ends up nothing more or less than a stringently realistic re-creation of the deadliest family reunion you’ve ever avoided attending. —Jessica Winter
The Old Man and the Seethe
Githa Sowerby’s 1911 Rutherford & Son (Mint Theater) would have made a jolly whodunit. When the lights rise on the second act, the body of Rutherford—the owner of the town’s failing glassworks and an unrelenting bully—could be laid out bloodily on the drawing-room carpet, a large shard of glass stabbed through his heart. Then we might have had a fine old North England time discovering which grown child couldn’t stand the abuse any longer and did old Dad in. (My money’s on disgruntled curate Dick, but innocent grandbaby Tony would have made for a good twist.)
Sadly, no bodies strew the stage of this family drama, and the second and third acts play out as grimly as the first. Old Rutherford (Robert Hogan) browbeats impotent Dick, sniveling son John, and spinster daughter Janet into attitudes of rebellion and despair. Imagine Chekhov if everyone said exactly what they felt, all in appropriate Northumberland accents. Feet stamp, doors slam, and tear-choked voices form a chorale of accusation and suffering. Director Richard Corley gives these histrionics free rein, spurring the actors on. He seems quite unconcerned with layering in tonal shifts or nuance, and the continuous high-pitch of voices and emotions soon grows exhausting. As the aging Janet, Jurian Hughes does manage some variation in her hysteria, but Tom Story as her brother John fares less well. If Story is determined to enact John as some effete, melodrama villain and wear a moustache, it’s unforgivable he should go a whole play without twirling it. Patriarch Hogan, though his upper lip is similarly adorned, rightly skips the twirling. He conveys quite enough unapologetic menace without recourse to gesture. You might even say he kicks glass. —Alexis Soloski
The Boy From Brazil
One day when DuCarmo Alexandrino was a boy in Brazil, he went fishing with his grandfather. Following a storm sparked by rhythmic lightning, Alexandrino’s grandfather hooked the fish he’d promised they’d catch—but immediately threw it back. The pair returned home, where only hours later the lad’s grandfather was arrested—it was the politically repressive ’60s. He was later found dead. Alexandrino didn’t recover from the disappointment of losing both fish and grandfather on the same day until years later, when he found his grandfather’s diary. Reading it, he learned that the fishing expedition had been a metaphorical lesson. His grandfather caught and freed the fish as an illustration that opportunity must be seized, then liberated for the greater good.
Remarking that “lack of understanding is a trigger for sadness, depression, and alienation,” Alexandrino has seized the opportunity to tell his story in Rhythms in the Light, an energetic performance piece at La MaMa. He weaves his true tale through dances and songs sung in Portuguese, Spanish, and English. Slipping in and out of ragtag costumes, he dons and sheds contrasting moods as abruptly. The point of this theatricalized version of his travails is that over the years he’s compulsively pursued happiness as an antidote to the sadness he believes he may never vanquish. “The samba is used to distract,” he explains.
Cathartic art has its strengths, among them conviction and determination, but also its drawbacks—chiefly the possibility that something as personal as this presentation has more meaning for the performer than the observer. Under George Drance’s direction, Alexandrino encourages his audience to clap and sing—and even coaxes one patron to boogie beside him. But there are stretches when his lusty but unpolished cavorting leaves the audience as flummoxed as a fish pulled from the water and left there. —David Finkle
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 2, 2001