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A CurtainUp Review

Because he who becomes a superhero to give a kid a light .— Gabby

. . . is a very wise man indeed..— Gabby and Tommy
Grant Shaud & Florenda Florenzo (Photo: Gerry Goodstein )
Maggie Bofill's Winners presented by the Ensemble Studio Theatre, in partnership with the Radio Drama Network, is likely to win your heart and perhaps make you a fan of this up-and-coming playwright.

Set in present-day suburbia, it's a noirish comedy percolating with issues that resonate with contemporary life today: unemployment, marital problems, coming-of-age, love (in all senses of the word), and sex (both healthy and perverted), the skyrocketing cost of education, and the inevitable competition that occurs in a family and at the workplace.

This portrait of a dysfunctional familyclearly doesn't gild the lily. The play leaves no stone unturned, and all the family's dirty laundry will be in plain view-and sometimes even chewed up by the family dog Buck.

The dramatis personae is very eclectic, with a touch of the surreal. There's Brian, the unemployed father who's become a fledgling gourmet cook during his lengthy stretch of unemployment. . . Mabel, his attractive wife and the family's current breadwinner, has an alpha personality on the surface but beneath lies a very caring and supportive wife and mother. . . son Tommy, age 16, has just been fired from being the Gap's storeroom manager (He showed-up at work "stoned" and with a roach clip in his pocket) and now has joined his dad in the ranks of the unemployed. . . Gabby, age 11, has just transferred from private to public school, has an artistic temperament, and is in the process of writing a Christmas play about the "Three Kings" for the school's holiday pageant.

All the above, plus the family dog Buck and cat Marie Antoinette, who wear no animal costumes but whose respective personas are decidedly canine and feline. And going beyond the walls of the family homestead are neighbors Bill, who is a supervisor at the local Gap (and the person who hired, and then fired, Tommy from his job), and his conservative wife Lilly, who is head of the board at St. Mary's and also in charge of its upcoming school pageant.

Bofill never tries to hit you over the head with a moral or make any profound statements about life. But she manages to score with this honest depiction of a family who gain their footing by confronting their mis-steps, human vulnerabilities, and the reality of dealing with life's hard blows. Although there are plenty of problems on the homefront, the neighbors ratchet up the emotional temperature.

Everybody in this play goes through a crucible, more or less, to test their moral integrity. One character who sorely fails to measure up eventually gets his comeuppance. Though "winning" here may be better than losing, those winning and losing here can change places in a nanosecond.

The playwright also adds a lot of theatrical texture with its play-within-a-play device. Its staging in Act 2 by Gabby and Tommy is reminiscent of Hamlet's "Mousetrap" scene. It starts out as after-dinner entertainment for the family and their neighbors Bill and Lilly but ends up revealing a truth that precipitates a police report.

The acting ensemble is uniformly strong. Nobody upstages anybody, except perhaps for Connor and Hsu who play the family dog and cat with loyalty, wit, and cunning.

Jason Simms has cooked-up an impressive suburban-styled set and the scene changes are deftly handled too in split-second timing. Seth Resier's lighting ranges from the neon-styled lights of a Gap store to a soft-lit effect for the family's living quarters, to the flashlight-and-strobe effect to accentuate the amateurish but endearing quality of Gabby's "Three Kings" play production. Not to be forgotten are Sydney Maresca's costumes which cover all the bases, from the teenage funk look to the sophisticated black-tie. M. Florian Staab has some great sound-effects, with a recording of the Beatles' "Because" to organically blend in with pivotal dramatic moments and become a deeply-affecting musical motif.

As helmed by Pamela Berlin, Winners is a resounding winner. Although the final tableau may be too sentimental for some, Bofill has built her play with such solid architecture that its generosity of heart works. It teaches a deep lesson about the power of forgiveness-and letting go the past to embrace the future.

Winners by Maggie Bofill
Directed by Pamela Berlin
Cast: Grant Shaud, (Brian), Florencia Lozano (Mabel). David Gelles (Tommy) Arielle Goldman (Gabby), Curran Connor (Buck), Stephanie Hsu (Marie Antoinette), Scott Sowers (Bill), Polly Lee (Lilly)
Sets: Jason Simms
Costumes: Sydney Maresca
Sound: M. Florian Staab
Lighting: Seth Reiser
Stage Manager: Carly Levin
The Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street. Tickets: $30-$40. 866.811.4111
From 1/16/15; opening 1/22/15; closing 2/08/15.
Tuesday through Saturday @ 8pm.
Running time: 2 hours; 15 minutes with intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 1/17/15
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