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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Sojourners & Her Portmanteau at New York Theatre Workshop left me eager to see the rest of this 9-play cycle about a Nigerian-American family. School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play, a hilariously enlightening comedy was a deserved hit for MCC and is currently enjoying a reprise as that company's swansong before leaving the Lucille Lortel for their new home uptown.
The Home Coming Queen at Atlantic Theater's Stage II made me eager to see the New York premiere of Good Grief' since it too was written by Ngozi Anyanwu and directed by Awoye Timpo.
To begin with the good news: Anyanwu again demonstrates her gift for creating likeable characters and writing natural dialogue. Here she also proves herself to be a versatile actor. As Nkechi, the narrator and heroine of this coming of age memory play she must portray her as a child and young adult (from 1992 to 2005). And she does so quite convincingly. Director Timpo guides the cast to help us follow Nkechi's back and forth in time story telling with minimal confusion.
Much as I'd like to continue in this thumb up mood, Good Grief comes off as working too hard to stage an essentially simple story of loss and regret with cutting edge originality. Despite living up to its title by making the death of a major character part of Nkechi's journey to adulthood, Good Grief just doesn't strike the viewer's emotional chords as deeply or effectively as The Homecoming Queen did. To be fair the audience a my performance seemed to love the play, and the dialogue intended to prompt big laughs got the desired response.
Since Good Grief is a semi-autobiographical play, Anywayu in her playwright's role has made her stand-in character our tour guide through the landscape of her life as a first-generation American in a Bucks County, Pennsylvania suburb. Central to her variously replayed recollections is her relationship with MJ (a charismatic and endearing Ian Quinlan) her neighbor who dreams of being king because kings live forever, and becomes her confidant and tutor in how to kiss. — until tragedy strikes.
The play's 17 scenes jump back and forth, with Nkechi at times as an immigrant youngster beset with feelings of otherness and as a 20-year-old on leave from medical school because she feels drawn to a future other than her parents' idea of the American dream.
It's at this already uneasy time in Nkechi's life that tragedy ends MJ's big dreams and his comforting and fun presence in her life. This results in her more or less stopping time in order to relive her memories and achieve that "good grief."
The replayed memories (some in the form of fantasies, some real but not necessarily exactly as they happened) also bring on interaction with her parents (Oberon K.A. Adjeponk and Patrice Johnson Chevannes, both excellent), her brother (Nnamdi Asomugha), MJ's mother (Lisa Ramirez), and JD (Hunter Parish) who figured in Nkechi's desperate but fearful desire to lose her virginity.
For fantasy elements to blend successfully into a basically realistic story, they should be essential to the main plot. That's not quite the case here. Colorful and imaginative as some of the fantasy segments inserted here are, the play would work as well without them and would probably be well served with more scenes involving Nkechi's parents. Are they the only Nigerians in that suburb? Since MJ' is Nkechi's neighbor, wouldn't the families know each other even if they were unaware of their children's closeness?
Jason Ardizzone-West's bi-level set does its job. The upper tier serves as some sort of rooftop where Nkechi and MJ's growing up together intimacy unfolds. A large bench on the lower level is impressively multi-functional. However, neither the set or other crafts elements are especially appealing. There's nothing to really accentuate the fact that this is the story of an immigrant family finding themselves in a middle-class American landscape.
To conclude, bravo to the Vineyard for continuing to offer their stage original work by new and diverse talent.
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Written by and starring Ngozi Anyanw
Directed by Awoye Timpo
Cast: Nkechi (Ngozi Oberon K.A. Adjeponk (Papa), Nnamdi Asomugha (Bro), Patrice Johnson Chevannes (NeNe),Hunter Parrish (JD), Ian Quinlan(MJ), Lisa Ramirez (Neighbor's Mom/MJ's Mom)
Scenic design by Jason Ardizzone-West
Costume design by Andy Jean
Lighting design by Oona Curley
Sound design by Daniel Kluger
Original Music: Jay Ike
NFight Director: Uncle Dave's Fight-House
Stage Manager: Alysa K. Howard
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Vineyard Theatre 108 East 15th Street
From 10/11/18; opening 10/30/18; closing 11/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 10/26/18 press preview
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