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A CurtainUp Review
When January Feels Like Summer

" Now that we have begun to pray, the miracles will begin. "—Indira
When January Feels Like Summer
L-R: J. Mallory McCree and Maurice Williams (Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
There's something distinctive about being a New Yorker. Transplant or native, once you've lived in New York City for a certain period of time, the unusual confluence of circumstances which brings people together on a daily basis in the world's most famous city becomes routine — not boring, exactly, but not unexpected. And the relationships formed in such a place, which seem bizarre and even incredible from the outside, make sense to those who live here.

When January Feels Like Summer, a collaboration between the Ensemble Studio Theatre and Page 73 Productions, may have gotten its start in Pittsburgh. But the conceit at the heart of the play, which tells the story of five very different people living in Central Harlem, is all Big Apple, and the love of the place which drives it is palpable in every scene.

The play essentially follows two narrative lines. The first stars Devaun (Maurice Williams) and Jeron (J. Mallory McCree), two young men working at (a different) Burger King and trying to make a living despite difficult personal circumstances. Both are optimistic though, and often (driven by Jeron) involved with various schemes. When Devaun has an unwanted encounter at a local bodega, he and Jeron come up with an idea to "do something" about what happened, which brings them to another convenience store-where the store owner's wife Nirmala (Mahira Kakkar) and her brother Ishan (Debargo Sanyal), both immigrants from India, are locked in a battle over Ishan's desired sex change. Nirmala is running the store for her incapacitated husband, struggling not to lose total control of her world, and Ishan's wish to become Indira is one more change Nirmala isn't interested in having to deal with.

It may all sound awfully like a Lifetime or Hallmark special, and were it treated cynically it would probably come out that way. But playwright Cori Thomas is a native New Yorker and her sense of humor about and love for the characters who live here is obvious.

Devaun is a poorly educated, homophobic womanizer . . .sort of. But he's also well-intentioned, more caring than he lets on and desirous of making a difference. Jeron is narcissistic and narrow-minded, but his cleverness and general good nature are always on display. Ishan/Indira has delusions of grandeur and can be more than a little overbearing, but her sensitivity to those around her, driven by her own personal battles, is often moving-while Nirmala is rigid and distant, but also moral, honorable and beautiful, three traits which sanitation worker Joe (Dion Graham) find eminently attractive. All five characters are ultimately engaging and sympathetic, a testament not just to Thomas's creation but to high quality acting from the ensemble and excellent, lively direction from Daniella Topol.

If I step back for a moment, I could easily note a number of flaws: the plot is fairly ridiculous, and the relationships are too soppingly sweet. The dialogue (and dialect) is laid on too thick in places. There's also a tendency to whitewash racial tensions, cultural conflicts and global problems which can't really be solved with ringing bells and appeals to magic and miracles.

But I live in New York. And if you've ever spent any extended time here, I think you'll find as I did that the play's genuine warmth and love for its characters, flawed and imperfect as they are, both rings true and is a welcome change from the world-weary cynicism which pervades a great deal of modern drama.

Despite its own imperfections, this is a well-done and uplifting production by Ensemble Studio Theatre and Page 73. If you've ever smiled at something you've seen on a New York City street when passing by, When January Feels Like Summer is your kind of play.

When January Feels Like Summer
Playwright: Cori Thomas
Director: Daniella Topol
Cast: Dion Graham (Joe), Mahira Kakkar (Nirmala), J. Mallory McCree (Jeron), Debargo Sanyal (Ishan/Indira), Maurice Williams (Devaun)
Scenic Designer: Jason Simms
Costume Designer: Sydney Maresca
Lighting Designer: Austin R. Smith
Composer and Sound Designer: Shane Rettig
Running time: Two hours, ten minutes with a fifteen minute intermission
Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street, (866) 811-4111
From 5/28/14 to 6/22/14, opening 6/5/14
Monday, Wednesday-Saturday @ 7 p.m., Saturday @ 2 p.m., Sunday @ 5 p.m.
Tickets: $40 reserved, $30 general admission, $20 senior and student, $10 matinee
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on June 2nd press performance
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