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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Klores knew and admired McAlary so this is clearly a homage to the man and his intense passion for the newspaper business, a business that, at least as he knew it, no longer exists. The Daily News, as well as other tabloid papers he wrote for no longer set their front pages "wood" (the slang term this world premiere's title). If McAlary were still alive, he'd be filing his reports electronically and probably also blogging.
Sad to say, though nothing could stop him from pursuing a story he felt had to be told, McAlary succumbed to colon cancer at age 41 — just a year after he won a Pulitzer for his muckraking Daily News series about how his fellow cops didn't stop Justin Volpe (Michael Carlsen) from torturing a Haitian refugee named Abner Louima. Admirable and heartbreaking as McAlary's feisty determination to tell Louima's story even as he was undergoing chemo treatments, Louima's bedside revelations about his ordeal and McAlary's own defeat in his battle with the grim reaper are excessively grim and melodramatic.
Mr. Klores opted to take a non-linear approach to this combination biography of McAlary's short but headline making life and the Louima story. This can make a play more interesting and varied but in this case it results in rather choppy, superficicial story telling with the back and forth scene jumps never letting the audience forget that they're watching a play.
The play begins with a bar scene that segues into a long audience addressing monologue by McAlary. This is followed by scenes between McAlary and his devoted wife Alice, his friend and colleague Tommy (David Deblinger), the Daily News editor (Thomas Kopache) who cautions him not to repeat the mistake that almost ruined his career; and of course with Abner Louima (Vladimir Versailles) and his wife Micheline (Melanie Charles), both before and after after being brutally beaten and sodomized.
Except for McAlary and his wife, Justin Volpe the bad cop, and Abner Louima all the characters are double cast. The acting overall is as good as can be expected given the weak script. John Viscardi, who's on stage all the time, gives an energetic and committed performance.
If you've ever been to the Rattlestick, you'll know that getting all these characters and scene changes on that venue's miniscule stage is quite a challenge. Director David Bar Katz has managed the seemingly impossible very smartly. Under his direction, John McDermott has separated the small stage into several spaces with two open wall panels onto which projectionist Steve Channon projects images to work as scenery and otherwise illustrate the on stage action. The only props -- a hospital bed, a table and some chairs -- are wheeled on and off stage as needed.
The projections are excellent. It's too bad, that Bar Katz didn't have lighting designer Joel Moritz darken the stage for just a few seconds during the location shifts. That way the audience wouldn't see the increasingly ill McAlary and the badly injured Louima get in and out of bed, which hardly supports the authenticity of their situation.
Klores's first play Little Doc (also produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater), did depart from the documentary genre he says he's no longer interested in doing. However, it wasn't especially successful. According to Curtainup critic Simon Saltzman "it somehow managed to be both a little smart and a little stupid" and, most egregiously, it just didn't live up to either its promise or its premise. Maybe that's why the still fledgling playwright now tried to have it both ways by building his play around torn from the headlines characters. But The Wood is too soap-operatic, its characters too sketchy to add up to a solid docudrama.
To be fair, since September is cancer month, The Wood, is certainly a timely tribute to all cancer sufferers who, like Mike McAlary, bravely continue to live full and meaningfull lives as long as humanly possible.
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