Thursday, 6 November 2014

GRAND CONCOURSE by Heidi Schreck at Playwrights Horizons

     GRAND CONCOURSE is another example of the sort of slice of life realism -- what used to be called "kitchen sink dramas" -- that seems to be in vogue again, particularly from young women playwrights (for instance, Annie Baker and Amy Herzog). This one literally takes place in a kitchen, a soup kitchen for a Catholic church in the South Bronx, and has a working sink and stove. Dishes are washed, vegetables are cut, eggs are fried. Shelley, who is in change, is a thirty-nine-year old nun, who is in a perpetual crisis of faith. Shelley became a nun in part to rebel against her parents with whom she still has a tenuous relationship. She has difficulty praying, which is certainly a problem for a nun. The real test of her faith and her ability to act out of compassion comes when nineteen-year-old Emma comes to volunteer in the kitchen. Emma knows that she is sick inside. Is that sickness best defined in medical or religious terms? She cries out for -- demands -- help from Shelley. As Shelley later says, Emma may not act out of malice but she still commits evil acts. She gains the sympathy of the workers and "guests" of the soup kitchen by claiming to have leukemia. She tells Oscar, the handsome, sweet young Dominican worker, that her cancer gives her the right to make demands, even sexual demands, on him. Emma wants to be a force for good -- she sometimes is -- but she also is destructive. To what extent should Emma be forgiven for her lies and her irresponsibility? The play shows that being good takes effort, a battle against one's baser impulses.
      GRAND CONCOURSE has the flaws I find in many of these new slice of life plays. It doesn't dig deeply enough into the ethical and spiritual questions is raises. Schreck's language defines characters, but is a bit flat. One can inject some theatrical poetry into this kind of play as earlier realists like Clifford Odets did masterfully. GRAND CONCOURSE is comprised of a lot of short scenes, which means that the play has no overall momentum. Moreover, it's not always clear how much time has elapsed between these short scenes.
      The cast is uniformly good. Quincy Tyler Bernstein convincingly shows the effort involved in Shelley's acts of compassion and the anger that simmers underneath. Ismenia Mendes captures the complexity of Emma who is both manipulative and out of control. Bobby Moreno radiates decency and good humor as Oscar and Lee Wilkof makes the most of his brief appearances as a homeless man trying to gain control of his life.  
      I found GRAND CONCOURSE to be thought provoking, but I did feel that it still needs some work.
GRAND CONCOURSE. Playwrights Horizons. November 5, 2014.

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