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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
Summer Cyclone

The thing about zero is it's a big empty place
and you can't take anybody with you.
---Amy Fox

We first encountered Amy Fox a year ago when her deliciously simple one-act, "Heights," was staged by Ensemble Studio Theatre's playwrights-under-30 collective,Youngblood, as a part of the grouping of new short plays called Thicker Than Water. Its setup was a fairly obvious romantic triangle but it succeeded because it never lost its grip on the underlying emotional stakes.

Summer Cyclone also sports its share of complicated romantic entanglements, but this time the audience is denied access to the characters' feelings on a level that permits us to embrace them. Lucia (Jenna Stern), after discovering she has breast cancer and deciding to participate in the testing of an experimental treatment, finds herself caught between the renewed attention of her ex-husband, Jeremy (Chris Ceraso), and a young medical student, Eugene (Johnny Giacalone), whose loyalty to the clinical trial is compromised by his feelings for her. The much younger Eugene, for his part, is also wrestling with his attraction to a vixen of a classmate, Reena (Amy Staats), and her growing awareness of his inappropriate relationship with a patient. His confliction is exacerbated by the advice he gets from his father, Milton (William Wise), also a physician, who counsels on the importance of humanizing rather than objectifying patients while respecting that medicine is as much art as science ("celebrating questions" rather than anticipating clear-cut answers). There's also a good deal of time spent on the healing powers of art, and the therapeutic value of marijuana.

Both father and son are haunted by the memory of their wife/mother, who died of cancer when Eugene was sixteen, while the specter of Lucia's list-making mother (Christine Farrell), who dealt with her own cancer by fleeing to France, never to again be seen, torments Lucia's every decision. Milton (played with an affecting cornball relish that picks up much of the play's humor, and most of its laughs) keeps asking his son to think of medicine as a bowl of minestrone. It's an equally apt (if different) metaphor for Ms. Fox's play. Her recipe is overloaded with fine ingredients, but short on the sort of warming broth that would let us savor them.

Jenna Stern is increasingly convincing (if a bit too young) as she battles the fear and longings Lucia faces, while searching for "actualities" in lieu of "possibilities", as well as a sense of inner peace. Giacalone, too, is believable as the often-bumbling, impressionable if sometimes tortured young medical student. Christine Farrell supplies in the visitant just the right image of Lucia's reveries. Although she's not able to overcome Fox's sprawling story enough to make it coalesce in a meaningful whole, Nela Wegman's direction, on an unfussy yet evocative set, is certainly able.

As a showcase for young playwriting talent, Youngblood has certainly given Amy Fox a platform on which to hone her skills. Her dialogue is generally quite good (there are efforts at humor on which she doesn't quite cash in), and she has many ideas that are certainly worthwhile, but her structure is at times a bit too precious and, as noted, her story too scattered. Much of this could be cured by an adjustment of form: either a single 90 minute act that would force her to jettison much of the extranea that dilutes her focus, or perhaps a soap opera -- a genre her scene-writing style certainly suggests -- in which she would have the luxury of time to develop characters in whom we might be more likely to invest.

The play's title refers to the famous roller coaster; Coney Island is the nostalgia-filled venue of many of the play's scenes. Extra mustard on the hot dog, please.

Review of Thicker Than Water

by Amy Fox
Directed by Nela Wegman

with Jenna Stern, Christine Farrell, Chris Ceraso, Johnny Giacalone, William Wise and Amy Staats
Set Design: George Xenos and Dorothea Brunialti
Costume Design: Amela Baksic
Lighting Design: Greg MacPherson Sound Design: Dean Gray
Running Time: 2 hours, including 1 intermission
A production of Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) and Youngblood
EST website:
Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street (10/11 Avs.) Telephone (212) 247-4982 Tues. - Sat. @8, Sun. @3; $15
Opening 2/26/01 Closing 3/18/01 .
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 2/23/01 performance

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