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A CurtainUp Review
Regan probably modeled Becky on her own mother, who worked at the same Triangle Shirtwaist Company Becky's daughters do, and this personal feel pervades much of the Peccadillo Theater Company's latest revival of the play at the Bank Street Theatre. This is both a strength and a weakness. When at its best, the production uses the family dynamic to great advantage; when at its worst, the melodrama of the plot becomes predictable and silly, and at these times the company is hard pressed to keep the audience's disbelief suspended.
It's a delicate dance, and if anyone can be trusted to choreograph it properly it is director Dan Wackerman, fresh off his exceptional stewardship of last year's Room Service (review). As with that production, Wackerman's use of the set (excellently designed by Joseph Spirito) is masterful. Extending the piano and couch to the very edge of the seats, it not only maximizes the limited space in the theater but brings the audience into the Felderman home. The actors use all of that space during the course of the performance. The play, which traces the numerous struggles and limited triumphs of the Felderman family over a twenty year period, relies on such personal contact. Understanding the family intimately is critical to understanding the play, and through set and costume (well designed by Gail Cooper-Hecht, who also designed the Room Service costumes) the production does all it can to heighten the intimacy.
The success of this endeavor on the acting side is a little more uneven. Steve Sterner as Becky's boarder Aaron Greenspan, Peter J. Coriarty as the amusingly Marxist Benjamin Brownstein and Matthew DeCapua as the family tutor Harry Engel (loved by Felderman daughters Esther (Caroline Tamas) and Sadie (Lena Kaminsky) all put in solid performances. Michael Tommer as the thirteen year old Hymie Felderman and later the thirteen year old Hymie Tashman (son of Becky's middle daughter Fanny (Darcy Yellin)), Josh Philip Weinstein as Fanny's husband Irving Tashman, David Levine as the older Hymie Felderman, Myron Engel as Harry's father and Geany Masai as the maid Pansy are somewhat weaker. Yellin's Fanny is probably the best of the lot, as she skillfully traces a middle line between Fanny's egotism and her loving warmth for her mother and husband. The scene where she reacts to the trauma of the Triangle fire is particularly well done.
But Morning Star really relies on Sadie and Becky. As eldest daughter, Sadie seems to feel left out of most of the family interplay, and as time goes on she becomes increasingly hostile to everyone around her. Kaminsky never really captures the right tone for this transition, though. Instead she plays Sadie as so angry and ambitious from the beginning that it's hard to understand how a family so evidently warm could have produced someone so cold and thoroughly dislikeable which makes the nuance of Sadie's interactions with the other characters difficult to grasp. Becky finally recognizes Sadie's cruelty in the final act, but her showdown with her daughter seems to be too little and much too late. It's hard to say how much of this is Greenhill's fault, but her Becky seems (like her affected Yiddish accent) a little flat and uninspired, and rather than admiring the mother's courage at shepherding her family through crisis after crisis we're left wondering what truly resonates with her. . .and why. Still, this uncertainty may be more the fault of the play than the actor.
For all of the warmth of the family portrait, using the Triangle fire, World War I and the Great Depression as the backdrops for the Feldermans' travails may well have been a tactical error—because Regan seems to feel forced to throw so many bombshells at her characters (and predictable ones at that) to compensate for the gravity of the external events that the audience starts to find it more funny than harrowing. That nearly half the characters either storm or cry their way off stage during the production (and some more than once) doesn't help assuage the inevitable feeling that the play has crossed the line from melodrama to soap opera, and not an overly believable one.
At times the production crackles with wit, energy, and genuine pathos, but at others it dips into the well of sorrows too much, and the results are more disappointing. If you like your tragedy laid on thick and don't mind the signposts leading you there, you might enjoy this revival. I just wish the ground taken to get there didn't seem quite so familiar.
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Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
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Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide