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A CurtainUp Review
By Jacob Horn
We soon come to know this woman as Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), a nun running a Bronx soup kitchen. The microwave isn't a false idol, but rather serves as a timer, since Shelly has started finding it harder to pray ("I've been forcing myself to pray for one minute, I'm trying to work up to two, and, eventually, five," she says later). As the play unfolds, we see Shelly struggle with her faith and her obligations under her position within the Church—both the more tangible ones, like providing aid to those in need, as well as the loftier ones, such as being able to forgive and love even those who have caused her hardship.
Shelley's new volunteer, Emma (Ismenia Mendes), has just dropped out of her first semester of college for personal reasons. By turns generous and selfish, curious about Shelley's faith and its biggest threat, Emma has more in common with the soup kitchen's patrons than Shelley might think. On Emma's first day, Shelley cautions, "The main thing is to have boundaries. You can joke around with the guys, but don't let them own you and don't give them money." But can she follow those rules with her own volunteer, and should she?
It's hard to say more about Grand Concourse, now premiering at Playwrights Horizons's Peter Jay Sharp Theater under the direction of Kip Fagan, without divulging key plot details. The play gets off to a choppy start (the timing of scenes is abrupt, and the actors spend a tremendous amount of time literally chopping vegetables), but it proves to be an engrossing roller coaster, filled with complex characters and questions with no easy answers.
Bernstine's Shelley is richly developed by both the playwright and the actress. While spirituality and its discontents are phenomena of the human mind that are notoriously difficult to express externally, watching Shelley describe her call to and challenges with faith is captivating. Bernstine has a gift for careful timing and delivery that can enhance the funniest and most serious dialogue in the play alike.
Mendes deals admirably with the contradictions and incoherencies that are integral to the character. There are moments early on where Emma vaguely resembles the character trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl—she has problems but compensates with a bubbly lust for life—yet this is really the tip of the iceberg. Mendes embraces the difficulties of her role so that it's hard to feel sympathetic for Emma at her best and equally difficult to dismiss her at her worst.
The two female leads are supported by enjoyable performances from Bobby Moreno, as the security guard Oscar, and Lee Wilkof, as the homeless Frog. Both parts provide some comic relief, particularly Frog, who could ostensibly be modeled after Seinfeld's Kramer; the humor of his character is, admittedly, a bit uncomfortable given the character's mental instability, yet the play carefully avoids exploiting this as a source of humor and Wilkof offers a warm, sensitive portrayal.
Moreno's role feels less grounded and Oscar's offstage girlfriend Lydia becomes something of a contrivance, but the performer himself is always a vital force onstage, with a strong, likable presence and energetic delivery.
An attentive scene design by Rachel Hauck has yielded a fully detailed (and impressively functional) kitchen, which stays dynamic with the aid of finely tuned light and sound design by Matt Frey and Leah Gelpe, respectively.
With the assets of a strong cast and thoughtful direction, Grand Concourse tackles such challenging topics as faith, redemption, forgiveness, and mental illness. Refreshingly, though, it doesn't try to force any unreasonably neat conclusions about any, perhaps reflected in the equal moments of laughter and charged silence generated by the play's final scenes. Running a soup kitchen is messy work, but kitchen surfaces are easily cleaned. Relationships? That's another story entirely—and in Grand Councourse, it's a gripping one.