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A CurtainUp Review
The New Englanders

. . . are you happy? — Elsa
I have you don't I   Aaron
The New Englanders
(l-r) Kara Young, Teagle F. Bougere, Patrick Breen (photo: Joan Marcus)
The first and last scenes of Jeff Augustin's The New Englanders, now in its world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club's Studio Stage II, focus on the central story. While the many brief duets in between those bookend scenes are indeed set in a small New England town, an apt alternative title would be Can This Marriage Be Saved?

. One of the most popular women's magazines of a long ago era, The Ladies Home Journal, actually ran a monthly Can this Marriage Be Saved column. The couples seeking help belonged more in one of the canvases by another New Englander, Norman Rockwell, than Mr. Augustin's Aaron (Teagle Bougere) and Samuel (Patrick Breen), or their daughter Elsa (Kara Wolfe).

The changes in the typical American family (if ever there really was one outside of Rockwell's famous idyllic paintings and 1940s movies) are indeed welcome. But these now acceptable new family units have brought on new issues to deal with. And it should thus not come as a surprise that the marriages possible in our more open minded societies don't all follow a blissfully ever after path.

Whether the married couple consists of two men or a man and a woman, time and domesticity does tend to dull youthful passions. Add life styles and careers that don't pan out as hoped for, and the troubled partners tend to end up having a lot in common with old style heterosexual family dramas. And that is exactly the case with Aaron and Samuel in The New Englanders.

That a crisis looms in Aaron and Samuel's marriage is clear in the very first scene when Aaron answers his 17-year old daughter's question as to whether he's happy with "I have you, don't I". Both dads clearly adore their daughter, but whether they still adore each other is not so clear cut. In fact, as we watch the men's interaction in the few scenes they have together, one wonders if this was ever a grand passion . Since one of the six characters is a former lover of Aaron's this seems particularly so for him. More problematic still is the script's everything but the kitchen sink approach.

While Mr. Augustin can't be blamed for wanting to tackle relevant issues facing a two-dad family, but he's just taken on too much. The marriage needing to be saved involves not just two gay man, but racial and religious differences (Aaron is African-American, and Samuel is white and Jewish). Their adopted daughter is biracial. The marriage is not helped by their being together only every other weekend since Samuel's job is too far away for his being on scene full time.

And there's more: The cooling of the men's relationship intensifies when Aaron's first love shows up and his and Aaron's interactions reveal further causes for marital discord. Their long ago affair r included heavy marijuana use which Aaron still misses. Samuel, on the other hand has always been a strictly no drugs man. Raul being Latino adds yet another wrinkle to the multicultural mix.

As if all this weren't enough, there's Aaron's insistence that he's happy even though his writing has hardly led to the sort of literary life he envisioned when he was daughter Elsa's age. Actually, it's Elsa's assignment to create a vision board that's the playwright's device for weaving additional plot thread into the basic story of the marriage in need of saving. While such projects are apparently considered valuable educational tools to help students set and achieve worthy goals. However, for Elsa that assignment symbolizes the conventional, small-town conformity she hopes to escape. The adult she admires is not her white teacher Laura Charpie (Crystal Finn) but the famously counterculture black singer Lauryn Hill.

It would be nice if Kara Young's Elsa actually expressed her admiration for Lauryn Hill with a few songs. Instead, her refusing to make a vision board turns into a hostile and ultimately highly improbable confrontation with her teacher. And, while her dads may think Elsa is as smart and dear a daughter as any parent could wish for, she is the play's most unsympathetic character. As the business about her incomplete vision board assignment escalates, her behavior actually veers into certifiable lunacy — as does the whole play.

Credit the playwright for his ambitious attempt to explore issues dealing with marriage, parenting, education, drugs from a very now point of view. the lens of a multicultural couple. Even though the various plot elements don't hang together believably, Mr. Augustin does handle the pas-de-deux structure quite effectively. He even manages to occasionally add some humor, as when Atlas (Adam Langoon) , a classmate of Ella's working at a restaurant and selling drugs to pay for college explains his unusual name with "My parents were really into Cartography — like as a hobby.

The actors too deserve credit for doing their best with the never fully developed characters they've been given. Teagle Bougere is the standout as Aaron, the New England based Dad . Dad number two, Patrick Breen, is on familiar territory having previously been in one of two earlier (and better) plays viewing marriage and parenting through a gay lens — Peter Parnell's Dada Woof Papa Hot and Mark Gerrard's Steve .

Director Saheem has brought along the set and costume designers Arnulfo Maldonado and Dede Ayite from his most recent directing gig at Lincoln Center ( The Rolling Stone) to create the handsome looking production one expects at any of MTC venue.

While the final scene brings the main players together so that one can hope that this marriage can indeed be saved. Yet, I left the theater not caring all that much.

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The New Englanders by Jeff Augustin
Directed by Saheem Ali
Cast:Teagle F. Bougere (Aaron), Patrick Breen (Samuel), Crystal Finn (Laura Charpie), Javier Munoz (Raul) , Adam Langdon (Atlas) and Kara Young (Elsa) .
Sets:Arnulfo Maldonado
Costumes: Dede Ayite
Lighting: Alan C. Edwards
Sound: Palmer Hefferan
Stage Manager:Marco Wolfe
Running time: 1 Hour and 40 minutes, no intermission
Studio at Stage II - Harold and Mimi Steinberg .at New York City Center
From 9/17/19; opening 10/02/19 ;closing 10/30/19
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 9/29 press preview

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