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A CurtainUp Review
Thinner Than Water

Your mom was the hot mom. Gary’s mom was the fat mom. . .and my mom was the pain in the ass. — Renee, the oldest of 3 half-siblimgs bonded to each other by their unsatisfactory moms' marriages to an even more unsatisfactory father.
Thinner Than Water
Elizabeth Canavan asRenee and Deirdre O’Connell as Gwen
(Photo: Monique Carboni )
There's a birthday cake on the coffee table of the rather nondescript suburban living room where Melissa Ross's debut play for LABrynth Theater Company begins. But the voices of those present aren't raised to sing "Happy Birthday." What we're witnessing is the kind of tense family conference that often turns into an insult trading screaming match.

As we listen to the barrage of sarcasm and anger filled exchanges, we learn that the three people in the room are half-siblings. Renee (Elizabeth Canavan) the owner of the home is in her early forties and Cassie (Lisa Joyce) is in her late twenties. The initially silent man whose name is Gary (Alfredo Narciso), is in his mid-thirties.

The playwright manages to pack a lot of family history into that first of her play's thirteen brief scenes. We learn that Renee, Cassie and Gary are bonded unhappily but inseparably by the insecurity and neediness that's their heritage as children of a man who wasn't much of a father to any of them or a husband to their mothers. While two of the three mothers are still living, it seems as if Renee is the one they rely on when there's a problem which, given their life coping skills, is apparently fairly often. Those coping skills, or rather lack of same, handily fit a tweet: Gary is a pot-head who still lives with his mom, Cassie can't commit to a full time job or boyfriend Henry (Aaron Roman Weiner).

The get-together in Renee's home is not to help her celebrate her birthday but to enlist her help in dealing with the father they all disdain. He may have done them and their mothers wrong and be an irascible, compulsive gambler, but he's now in a a coma which is more than likely to kill him.

Love him or hate him, and despite their own unmoored emotional lives, and the watered down blood ties implied by the title, there's no one else to do the right thing. Well, actually, there is. Gwen (Deirdre O'Connell), the woman they heard about but never met, is in the hospital.

While there's no saving Dad from the Grim Reaper, the three siblings' messy lives become somewhat less of a mess through their interaction with various outsiders. Most poignantly, there's Gwen. She is an unjudgmental witness to the threesome's quarrels in the hospital waiting room, just as she was unjudgmental of their father's weaknesses. Most amusingly, there' are Angela (Megan Mostyn-Brown), a mother for whose kid Gary signs up to be a Big Brother and Benjy (Stephen Ellis), Gary's co-worker at a comic book store.

Since Ms. Ross has concocted a rather kooky cast of characters, there are plenty of laughs in what is essentially a tragedy. But anyone even remotely realistic is going to see that even though things end on a happier note than they begin, this isn't exactly a sure to last happy ending. The characters, with their mix of humor and poignancy and the device of someone's dying to launch the plot are somewhat reminiscent, though not as wildly original as one of LABrynth's early, genre busting hits by an emerging playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, Our Lady of 121st Street.

The all-around excellent cast goes a long way to make the play's strengths stand out. Those strengths are at their most muscular when the superb Deirdre O'Connell is on stage. She admits to being a non-stop talker, yet she's also a quiet and all observing presence in that hospital waiting roomn, as when she wryly tells the battling Renee, Cassie and Gary not to let her being there interrupt their bickering ("You all just go right on ahead and do what you need to do. You just keep on being hateful and horrible. You just keep right on just tearing each other to bits. You won’t even know I’m here."). Gwen's genuine warmth and caring are in full bloom come through loud and clear in a subsequent scene with Renee.

Two of LABrynth's virtuoso actors, Elizabeth Canavan and David Zayas, also deliver powerful performances — she as the woman who hates but can't loosen the ties to her blood-thin relations, and he as the husband she will lose if she doesn't. These two and O'Donnell are the play's most fully fleshed out, believable characters.

Unlike some of the more lavish productions during the company's tenure at the Public Theater, Mimi O'Donnell had to handle her first directing gig in a much more modest setup. With a strong assist from her crafts team she's done a great job to create the various locations called for and for easy movement from one to the other. The central playing area turns from a living room into a hospital waiting room with the pull of a sheer curtain; The front of Henry's apartment building, the cafe where Gary and Angela meet and the comic book store where he works are fusslessly arranged around the periphery.

The tiny Cherry Pit theater (some readers may know as the West Bank Cafe) is a good choice for giving this director and playwright a chance to take on new challenges away from the pressure cooker atmosphere of larger uptown venues. Uptown or downtown, I'm looking forward to seeing what they do next,

Thinner Than Water by Melissa Ross
Directed by Mimi O’Donnell
Cast: Elizabeth Canavan (Renee), Stephen Ellis (Benjy), Lisa Joyce (Cassie), Megan Mostyn-Brown (Angela), Alfredo Narciso (Gary), Deirdre O’Connell (Gwen), Aaron Roman Weiner (Henry), David Zayas (Mark). Set: Lee Savage
Costumes: Bobby Frederick Tilley II
Lights: Japhy Weideman
Sound: Jeremy J. Lee
Stage Manager: Pamela Salling
Running Time: 2 hours including intermission
LAByrinth Theater Company at the Cherry Pit 155 Bank Street 212.513.1080.
From 2/08/11; opening 2/15/11; closing 3/06/11.
Tuesday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 3:00 p.m.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at February 12th press preview
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