Is it OK to help strangers but lie to your friends? And is a nun still a nun if she comforts the afflicted but can’t remember how to pray?
No and no, according to Heidi Schreck’s sobering new play, Grand Concourse, now at Playwrights Horizons in a production directed by Kip Fagan. Schreck goes behind the scenes at a Bronx soup kitchen, tracing the travails of do-gooders who are unable to help themselves. The result is a series of thoughtful, sympathetic portraits…that teeters on the edge of angsty hysteria.
Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), the nun in question, runs the operation with obsessive attention to detail, but her marriage to Christ is on the rocks. And pretty soon more trouble arrives. Emma (Ismenia Mendes), a new volunteer, is 19 and looking for, well, everything: friends, purpose, relief from inner turmoil. She’s welcomed but can’t resist stirring the emotional pot, squandering the good will she earns chopping carrots by lying, manipulating, and disappearing when she’s needed most.
Bernstine endows Shelley — a role that could easily be dour — with endearing warmth, and Mendes hits the right mixture of well-intentioned and emotionally clueless. But Schreck can’t resist cooking up a little too much drama herself. Traumas mount, outbursts begin to overwhelm. Understatement might have given this delicate tale the nourishment it deserves.