Playwright Lindsey Ferrentino was inspired to write this piece by questions surrounding her Aunt Amy, born with Down Syndrome “during a time when medical professionals told my grandparents they had just given birth to a ‘Mongolian idiot’ who would never learn to read or write…” Like the character in her play, Amy was put into a state-funded institution where she surpassed presumptions, but was only visited by family on holidays and vacations. Ferrentino insisted than an actor with Down Syndrome play the role.
Jacob (Mark Blum) and Maggie (Debra Monk) have flown respectively from California and Chicago to bury their father on Staten Island. They bicker with some warmth, but it’s clear the two are not close. The familiar actors are low key, natural, and amusing; skilled with sympathetic banter and timing.
Debra Monk, Jamie Brewer, Mark Blum
On the way, the siblings pick up younger sister Amy (Jamie Brewer of American Horror Story – handily in command ) who’s spent her life in a succession of state institutions. The two still think of her as a child and show up with balloons. How will they break the news? How does one explain death to a challenged mind?
As their father legally turned over primary care – surprise! – Amy’s principal attendant must, they’re told, accompany her. So much for private family bonding. Fortunately, Kathy (a credible Vanessa Aspillaga) is warm, attentive, and intimately knows the young woman whom her brother and sister find a stranger. Surprise?! Kathy’s also loud, talkative, dutifully intrusive, and a bit too much of a cliché.
Amy is sufficiently functional to hold down a job at a local movie theater (chauffeured by the institution van) and acquire a boyfriend oddly named Nick Nolte. Though on the spectrum, she’s nowhere near as immature or oblivious as her relatives concluded. Neither, it seems, has spoken directly with her for years.
John McDermitt and Jamie Brewer
Growing up, every visit from the family entailed going to the movies – clearly a way to avoid talking. The only consistent thing in Amy’s life has been film. She peppers conversation with a remarkable array of applicable quotes and won’t be parted from a fully loaded laptop with headphones.
The above plays out in tandem with backstory scenes featuring two young people who turn out to be Maggie and Jake’s parents. Sarah (Diane Davis) is falling apart under the pressures of caring for a baby who’s diagnosed as hopeless, in addition to two other children and husband Bobby (Josh McDermitt).
It turns out that Amy’s real history is a far cry from the one Maggie and Jake imagined. The startling truth radically affects both feelings about their parents and their own consciences. Perspective adjusts with a deafening screech. Now what?
(Amy’s double entendre curtain speech of movie quotes cleverly gives her the last word – Guess that film!)
“…I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
But no more.
I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!!
I am serious.
Don’t call me Shirley.
Director Scott Ellis does a good, if not especially original job.
The writing is not as compelling as the subject matter.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Vanessa Aspillaga, Jamie Brewer, Debra Monk, Mark Blum
Roundabout Theatre Company presents
Amy and the Orphans by Lindsey Ferrentino
Directed by Scott Ellis
Laura Pels Theatre
111 West 46th Street
Through April 22, 2018
Attesting to its timeless appeal, the 1936 Hungarian play Parfumerie by Miklós László had been made into two Hollywood films – The Shop Around the Corner and The Good Old Summertime – before this 1963 musical saw the light. Nor did that end reinterpretation, as the next generation grinned through You’ve Got Mail.
The Joe Masterhoff/Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick version is a hand-painted valentine, a shaken snow globe, a waltz. As written, the piece has universal appeal. Its book is sympathetic and unfussy, music and lyrics original and adroit. Once again numbers like “Sounds While Selling” in which we hear pieces of conversation from three customers with three salespeople:
1st WOMAN: I would like to see a…/KODALY:…face like yours…/2nd WOMAN: …cracked…/SIPOS:…but we carry…/1st WOMAN:Do you have a cream for…/2nd WOMAN:…very red…and “Vanilla Ice Cream,” which swings back and forth from the heroine’s astonishment at suddenly finding her nemesis captivating and writing to her lonely hearts “pen pal,” make me marvel the authors’ accomplishment. Not to mention resonant ballads and clever comedic numbers.
Zachary Levi and Michael McGrath
The show has warmth, humor, love, distinctive characters, misunderstanding, adultery, Christmas, and a happy ending, several really. What more could one want? It’s sentimental but not saccharine. I’m a longtime fan.
Here, as in the original, our story unfolds at Maraczek’s Parfumerie in Budapest, Hungary. Set Designer David Rockwell imagines the establishment as a charming, deftly detailed dolls’ house. The set morphs beautiflly. Mr. Maraczek (Byron Jennings) runs a cheerfully tight ship. The shop is managed by 30-something everyman Georg Nowack (Zachary Levi) and staffed by timid, Ladislav Sipos (Michael McGrath), womanizer Steven Kodaly (Gavin Creel), single-too-long Ilona Ritter (Jane Krakowski), and delivery boy Arpad Laslo (Nicholas Barasch). Kodaly and Ritter are having a clandestine affair about which everyone is aware.
Into this happy family comes Amalia Balash (Laura Benanti) desperate for a job. Though refused a position, the young woman whips off her hat and sells an item about which the proprietor is enthusiastic, but which Nowack considers a mistake. She’s hired. Balash and Nowack are now at loggerheads, a self perpetuating situation.
Having seen at least one of this story’s iterations, you must know that the eventual couple are unknowingly writing one another letters through a lonely hearts club. Both are completely smitten. An eventual attempt to meet evokes an usually touching and comic scenario during which he finds out the identity of his inamorata. Now what? Meanwhile, Kodaly’s latest betrayal of Ilona upsets the apple cart at work in ways no one anticipated.
Gavin Creek and Jane Krakowski
In order for any production to be successful, the show’s protagonists must seem unconscious of what the audience knows. Actors must play “straight,” innocent, or as my companion this evening succinctly suggested, they must “discover” in front of us. This, unfortunately, largely fails to happen.
Scott Ellis’s Direction broadcasts every emotion. Comedy arrives in a succession akin to – I’m about to be funny, look I’m being funny, wait – did you get that? There are broad ba-dump-dump looks and gestures appropriate to vaudeville. Moments of revelation ignore adjustment, confusion, and surprise in favor of being slick. Anger is glossed over. No one thinks or feels, they just move on.
Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi
Michael McGrath (Sipos) does a nice, subdued, early Nathan Lane-ish job, managing to be gentle and credible. Gavin Creel (Kodaly), the single actor for whom exaggeration is appropriate, is at the same time flamboyant and precise, never going for the yuks.
Jane Krakowski’s Ilona is all sex all the time. A theatrical fanny has not had so much work out since Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. This is supposed to be a girl possessed, neither naively kittenish, nor a vixen. When her turnabout occurs, we don’t buy it. Krakowski is a fine singer and usually a much better comedienne.
Zachary Levi (Nowack) seems to have had a revelation between Acts I and II. In Act I, he’s self-conscious and preening. In Act II, the actor suddenly becomes boyish and believable. “She Loves Me” is infectiously exuberant.
The biggest disappointment is Laura Benanti. At no time is the role of Amalia Balash plumbed for anything but surface expression. Benanti has an extraordinary voice which here, alas, is too often both loudly unfitting to a moment and unbecoming.
Re Warren Carlyle’s Choreography: Though Kodaly’s magnetism is amusingly showcased during a dance duet that features Krakowski’s skillful split (cue applause), that same move has no more business in “I Resolve”- her swearing off that kind of relationship – than do leg extensions through a highly slit skirt she later, aptly rebuttons. The once wry scenario at Cafe Imperiale (bravo Headwaiter Peter Bartlett), is now something out of a Marx Brothers script.
Tonight’s audience admittedly seems unaware of these issues. If you’ve never seen this delicious piece, perhaps you will be as well.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi
Roundabout Theatre Company presents
She Loves Me
Book-Joe Masterhoff; Music-Jerry Bock; Lyrics- Sheldon Harnick
Directed by Scott Ellis
254 West 54th Street
Through June 12, 2016