Saturday, September 20, 2014
Thursday evening marked the World Premiere of Walter Anderson's play, "Almost Home," presented by The Directors Company and Directed by Michael Parva at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row on 42nd Street. This new play is a crisply told story about a wounded Vietnam vet - a Marine sergeant returning home to the Bronx and to some undeclared wars on the home front.
"Almost Home" is the first drama written by Playwright Walter Anderson, former Chairman and CEO of Parade Magazine. Anderson draws from his own experience as a Marine sergeant in Vietnam and his roots growing up near White Plains Road to tell a very gritty and authentic Bronx tale. He knows full well that the men returning from 'Nam did not return to ticker tape parades, but to parades of nightmarish images and sounds beating an incessant tattoo of accusation and self-doubt inside their heads. One of the fellow veterans of Vietnam who collaborated with Mr. Anderson in fine-tuning this play was former U.S. Senator Jim Webb, who was in attendance at last night's opening performance.
The play is carefully and beautifully written, speeding along at a sparse eighty minutes. Within those precious minutes, Mr. Anderson weaves a complex tale of the homecoming of Johnny Barnett, who has been granted a 72-hour leave before having to report to Camp Pendleton, California. Mr. Anderson uses an economy of words and of action that propels the play at a brisk pace. The only exceptions are a handful of scenes between Harry Barnett, Johnny's father, and NYPD Captain Pappas that could be tightened up a bit.
Even before the actors take the stage, the audience has been successfully transported to the 1960s. Harry Feiner's splendidly gritty set reminded me of the flat occupied by Ralph and Alice Kramden in "The Honeymooners." From the enameled stove to the besmudged Frigidaire, we have a sense of time and place and even an approximation of which rung on the Bronx socio-economic ladder that the family occupies. The framed photo of JFK peering out at us from over the refrigerator reminds us that even though Kennedy is dead and gone, his legacy lives on in many ways, including the war that LBJ inherited when he took the oath of office aboard Air Force One in Dallas. Quentin Chiappeta's Sound Design kicks in and we are treated to a couple of period songs that reinforce the fact that we are back in the days when Camelot was being replaced by The Great Society. The costumes of Michael McDonald and the Lighting of Graham Kindred complete the picture.
In a prologue, the scene is set for tensions that will rise between Harry Barnett and his family and Captain Pappas. Harry, played with perfection by Joe Lisi, has been arrested for DUI. Mr. Lisi is himself a former Marine and former NYPD cop, so there is a deep and palpable genuineness to his portrayal of the WWII vet who struggles to hide his inner battles with alcohol and compulsive gambling. James McCaffrey sounds all the right notes as the smarmy and belligerent corrupt NYPD Captain who rules as 47th Precinct as if is were his personal fiefdom. Like a Mafia don, he values unquestioning loyalty and he expects it from Harry and Johnny, both of whom are in his debt.
Johnny returns from Vietnam, beginning to heal from wounds both physical and psychic. Jonny Orsini portrays the Marine sergeant in a bravura performance that is magnificent. He returns to the Bronx apartment in which he grew up to find his parents still squabbling as they have always done. He harbors secrets that he is reluctant to reveal, so he skims along the surface - distributing gifts to his parents and to his former teacher and muse, Miss Jones. He shares with them his tentative plans. The Marines have offered him a chance to become a Drill Instructor at Camp Pendleton or Camp LeJeune should he choose to re-enlist. But he has decided to attend junior college in Fullerton, California. His mother, the long suffering Grace Barnett, is played by Karen Ziemba. Ms. Ziemba has us believing that this traditional stay-at-home submissive housewife and protective mother is able to summon the strength to confront her husband and force him to unburden himself of secrets he has carried with him since returning from the Battle of the Bulge and a scarring POW experience. Grace wants Johnny to go to college, but not in California. Harry wants his son to stay in the Marines and make something of himself as a DI. Miss Jones wants Johnny to dream of limitless possibilities, as he had begun to do when he read the books she introduced to him when they were teacher and pupil.
The wild card in this equation is Captain Pappas, who shows up to make Johnny an offer he can't refuse. In exchange for forgiving debts owed to him by Harry and Johnny, the Captain has arranged for Johnny to attend the NYPD Police Academy and to join the elite Internal Affairs Department. He has ulterior motives, as always, With the immanent swearing in of reformist Mayor John V. Lindsey, there will be investigations of the goings on at Precinct 47 and elsewhere in the vast landscape of the NYPD. Captain Pappas wants Johnny to be his man inside the IAD to warn him of impending investigations. In a climactic scene that takes place on Captain Pappas' turf at the 47th Precinct House, Miss Jones confronts Pappas. Broadway veteran Brenda Pressley summons up several layers of attitude befitting a lioness protecting her cub from a predator when she lets loose with a tirade aimed at Pappas that draws from colorful vernacular from the mean streets. It is a memorable moment in the play.
Beginning with Mr. Anderson's inspired writing and Mr. Parva's clear direction, the quintet of actors tell the story of Johnny's homecoming in a compelling and moving way. It is clear that we are being told a complex tale of wars being fought in many theaters and at many levels. There are the literal wars from which both Harry and Johnny have received wounds and collateral damage. WWII and Vietnam have taken their toll and embedded secrets only reluctantly told. Then there is the undeclared war that breaks out in frequent skirmishes between Harry and Grace, and the asymmetrical conflicts between Johnny and each of his parents. The battle between Miss Jones and Captain Pappas is a tug of war for Johnny's very soul and future. I was reminded of the cartoons many of us watched back in the day - an angel perched on Johnny's right shoulder whispering words of encouragement to do the right thing. A demon lurking on the left shoulder screaming that Johnny would never be anything but a street punk. And those conflicting messages set up the final war - the civil war raging within Johnny's mind and spirit, wondering who he really is and who he is destined to become.
A further word about the performance of Mr. Orsini in conveying these swirling emotions. I have had the privilege of watching this actor develop since his days as a student at Boston's Suffolk University. I have seen him perform in film, on Broadway, Off-Broadway and "in the Regions"! It has been an arc of consistent growth and ever-deepening gravitas. In much the same way that he did in portraying a wounded warrior in the short film "Cigarette Candy," Mr. Orsini has created in Johnny Barnett a man who is grappling at the most profound levels with volcanic eruptions of thoughts and feelings that are often at odds with each other. Within the space of less than an hour and a half, he successfully opens windows that allow the audience to see and feel anger, fear, doubt, self-castigation, guilt, gratitude, hope, despair, defiance, and ultimately intrepid determination. It is a bravura performance of the highest order.
The play will run in a limited engagement through October 12.
Saturday, September 13, 2014
Ron Irwin has written a remarkable first novel, "Flat Water Tuesday," that is more than just a coming of age saga. Speaking largely through a combination of flashbacks to his prep school days at Fenton School and real time struggles in New York and on location in Africa, narrator Rob Carrey recounts his post-graduate year rowing for the Fenton "God Four" varsity boat. It was a tumultuous and life-changing year for each member of the crew - Carrey, John "Jumbo" Perry, Connor, Wadsworth and Ruth - the only female coxswain in the history of Fenton rowing.
The tone and substance of the piece reminded me a bit of several books I have treasured over the years that also have sought to capture something of the ethos and tensions of prep school life: "The Art of Fielding," "A Prayer For Owen Meany," and "A Separate Peace." Irwin has composed a piece the fleshes out quite well the characters of Carey, Connor, Perry, Ruth and their crusty coach, the enigmatic and inscrutable Channing. These were individuals similar to ones I had come to know during my own prep school days. The author captures the below-the-surface undercurrents and tensions that exist within the typical prep school community. The reader feels the divide that can never be truly crossed between the privileged Ivy league legacy kids who fly off to Aspen for the weekend, and the working class stiffs who have been invited to the party because they excel in academics or an particular sport that is valued in the Ivies. Crew is one such sport.
Although I could sense the tragedies that lurked just around the next bend in the narrative, I read voraciously to see what would happen to characters whose fates I had come to care about and identify with. The feel of Irwin's beautiful prose is in evidence in this passage near the end of the story. Carrey has gone for a run by himself at the end of his class's 15th reunion - a weekend that includes a memorial service for a fallen classmate and member of the God Four crew.:
"And then a miracle. A boat was making its way down to me. A small skull, the oars pressing into the water evenly, rhythmically, driven by a good hand. I waited to hear the sounds of the oarlocks, hear the exhalation of the rower, the backsplash of the blades, but it moved in silence.
It wasn't a sculler. It was a bird flying out of the sun and over the surface of the water, skimming it, just touching before lifting up and out of the river valley. I watched it fly over the mountains, wings beating. I looked once again at the river, but the sunlight had shifted and the surface had become a cool shadow. And I knew for sure that the bird would continue on and make its way to the ocean. On its journey it would fly over millions of us. It would soar over broken hearts and broken bodies and ended relationships and new beginnings and sons and daughters and parents and rivers and boats and schools and kids free for the summer and it would just keep going. It would fly over cemeteries and cars and houses and fields and roads and highways and then into the clouds, through shame and longing and regret and grief and forgiveness and laughter and childless love." (page 305)
Wow! That pretty much sums up much of this lovely book and the arc of many of our lives.