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A CurtainUp Review
Some Voices

Ray (Jamie Harris), one of the pivotal characters in the New Group's latest gritty slice-of-lower-class London life import, hears voices that he think will help him to"live with memory" (memories that include a sad childhood with an alcoholic father). It falls to his older brother and only living relative, Pete (Max Baker), to see that he keeps those voices at bay by taking his anti-depressants.

Dave (David Thornton), a key figure in the play's sub-plot declares: "There's a horse inside of me. I can't control it. I don't know what it is."

As Ray's voices have him teetering between periods of dangerous behavior patterns and overly exuberant "normalcy,"" so Dave's "horses" drive him to abuse his pregnant girl friend Laura (Ana Reeder). But instead of the policeman who should be jolly on the spot to stop Dave's violence towards Laura, we get Ray. Poor Laura. From the frying pan to the fire -- from a violent boyfriend to an adoring schizophrenic.

Poor Pete. Now, in addition to trying to get Ray to take his tranquilizers and ease up on the beer, he must deal with his hopeless romance and its near-suicidal consequences. And if that weren't enough, an escaped pal (Mitchell McGuire) from Ray's last incarceration lands on his doorstep.

According to the promotional copy used to advertise this play which debuted at the Royal Court Theatre in 1994 and won Britain's prestigious John Whiting Award, Some Voices is described as "heartbreaking and comic." While several people in the audience did indeed laugh heartily at some of the dialogue (in very authentic accents even if it takes a bit of concentration to get into them) there's little to laugh about in this grim picture of five difficult lives -- with not one of them interesting or touching enough to really grab hold of your heartstrings. Ray and even more so, Ives, are hardly more fully known to us than any of the faceless and homeless street people seen in any major metropolis. As these men don't shed any new light on the complex issue of responsibility for the mentally ill, Dave and Laura also fail to emerge as more than a case study couple who find themselves unable to cope with life in a big city far from home (Ireland).

In short, while Some Voices deals with large enough social themes, it never rises above being a small rather fragmentary play. Its claim to your attention stems from the acting which is uniformly good; also Frank Pugliese's capable direction of the eighteen short scenes with three large projection screens briskly rolling out changing backgrounds.

As the key relationship is between Ray and Pete, theirs are also the truly memorable performances. Even though we never get inside the head of either the boringly normal brother or the crazy one, both Jamie Harris and Max Baker render them with extraordinary sensitivity. Baker as the stretched-to-the-limits restaurant cook of few words is particularly good. The climax scene in which he uses his one passion -- cooking -- to reach out to his over-the-edge brother with a lesson in making an omelette is the evening's dramatic and emotional highlight. Watching those mushrooms and onions being chopped, the eggs broken and actually sauteed in the little portable cooking utensil makes you almost believe that into these flavorless lives at least an occasional pleasure -- like that tasty smelling omelet-- will fall.

A Consumer Note: Much as I admire The New Group, I've previously complained about their penchant for filling its stage with heavy cigarette smoke. New Voices marks no shift in this direction. Having had to cancel a preview performance to nurse a bronchial flu, I was painfully aware of the effect of the smoking on stage on my cough-prone chest. Every time a cigarette was lit numerous audience members suffered bursts of wracking coughs. I realize that people in London's lower economic strata do smoke a lot but the same point could be made with just a little less realistic puffing.

By Joe Penhall
Directed by Frank Pugliese
With: Jamie Harris (Ray), Mitchell McGuire (Ives), Max Baker (Pete), David Thornton (Dave) and Ana Reeder (Laura).
Sets: Kevin Price
Costumes: Mattie Ullrich
Lighting: James Vermeulen
Sound: Jill du Boff;
Original music: Tom Kochan
Fight director: J. Allen Suddeth
Presented by The New Group Theatre at St. Clement's, 423 West 46th Street (212/ 647-0752) 12/21/98-2/06/99; opens 1/07/99
Seen 1/09 and reviewed by Elyse Sommer

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