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A CurtainUp Review
By Charles Wright
Well it's a country song / Everything goes wrong / Yeah it all goes wrong / It's a country song. — Lyric to a ballad by Ray (actually written by The Bengsons) in Sundown, Yellow Moon
JD Taylor as Carver and Lilli Cooper as Ray (Photo: Ben Arons)
"You need to get out of your head," says one neighbor to another in Sundown, Yellow Moon. "You're making yourself sick — obsessing over something that's not gonna change." That warning wouldn't be off the beam for any of the five most prominent characters in Rachel Bonds' melancholy drama, which features a handful of original songs, most of them rather wistful, by the indie folk-rock duo The Bengsons.

Sundown, Yellow Moon has seven characters, but two (played by Anne L. Nathan and Michael Pemberton) are little more than supernumeraries who sing back-up in an impromptu hoedown and, as party guests, permit playwright Bonds to demonstrate how badly the three leading characters behave in company.

Those three are Tom (Peter Friedman), a teacher at a Southern boarding school, and his daughters, fraternal twins Joey (Eboni Booth) and Ray (Lilli Cooper). The twins, millennials residing in Queens, are back in their southern hometown for a visit, dismayed to find their father mired in a mid-to-late life emotional crisis.

The play is set in a Tennessee college town which isn't identified. The playwright's choice of an epigraph by James Agee is a clue that she has in mind Sewanee, the rural academic community where Agee attended St. Andrew's, a likely model for the boarding school where Tom teaches.

Tom has been suspended from his job after a public run-in with the headmaster that included, on Tom's part, profanity, name-calling, and an act of violence that may or may not have been accidental. Tom is now undergoing counseling in hopes that he can return to the faculty in the fall. His reclusiveness, indifference to health and hygiene, and persistent anger are alarming to his daughters and to Carver (JD Taylor), his therapist.

Tom's daughters seem, at first blush, to be on a more even keel than their father. Joey is headed to Berlin on a Fulbright grant. Ray has found a day job with a schedule flexible enough to let her pursue her aspirations as a singer-songwriter. A closer look reveals that the two sisters are hot messes as well.

Joey is agonized about the "huge and gaping ... unknown hole" of the future, and doesn't want to go to Berlin or follow through on her two-year academic commitment. Ray is creatively blocked and not writing or performing songs.

Both women are looking for love in emotionally dangerous places. Joey is losing her heart to a poet (Greg Keller) who's dependent on a successful wife for his livelihood. Ray is romantically involved with a much older woman, her boss at an arts philanthropy.

Sundown, Yellow Moon is a melodrama about characters so self-absorbed and mentally unintegrated that they're incapable of speaking candidly with each other. Bonds calls it a "Nighttime Play with Songs," and much of the action takes place in dark hours when the tortured dramatis personae are struggling with insomnia, swimming in moonlight, wandering aimlessly, and having assignations.

The play's structure is unruly, with several turns of plot that are inexplicable (or, at least, unexplained) and lots of narrative loose ends. As directed by the masterful Anne Kauffman, Bonds' dialogue sounds at crucial moments like overheard conversation. But some passages are so banal — so reminiscent of television soap opera — that they suggest authorial contempt for the character speaking and his or her motivating lunacy.

The most interesting scenes in the play involve Tom's therapist Carver, who could very well have blundered into Bonds' manuscript from a Walker Percy novel. Less whiney, with greater outward focus than the other characters (though still a major-league neurotic), he's the altruistic voice of the play, representing love neither familial nor sexual.

Once part of a promising indie band, Carver — like Ray — is a blocked songwriter and a lapsed musician. He's also an intensely needy figure. "I get attached to folks when I shouldn't," Carver tells Ray; and, in one poignant scene with Tom (beautifully played by both Taylor and Friedman), it's clear that Carver has difficulty perceiving where boundaries should lie between himself and others.

Carver's alienation from his art (and from his former band-mates) appears to be associated with lingering damage from a toxic relationship in adolescence. Although the script doesn't offer much in the way of specifics, we learn that, years ago, Carver's intense attachment to a priest became a local scandal. (When Ray asks Tom what he knows about the matter, he replies, " . . . they dismissed the [priest] and he was chased out of town, but who knows.")

Bonds has written a superb duologue for Carver and Ray that comes near the end of the play and could be a staple for acting classes. It's sensitively performed by Taylor and Cooper. At the shattering conclusion (no spoilers offered here), one blocked songwriter coaxes words and music out of the other, dramatizing how two neurotics at a loss to communicate directly may reach each other through music and verse.

The play's title is from a Bob Dylan lyric: "Sundown, yellow moon / I replay the past / I know every scene by heart / They all went by so fast." This Ars Nova/WP Theater co-production, with its exquisitely moody lighting (by Isabella Byrd and Matt Frey) and sound design (by Leah Gelpe), captures the tone of lamentation of Dylan's song and Agee's epigraph — "[I]t's good to go home but you never really get all the way home again in your life."

What's striking after an hour and a half with these characters, is how little they gain from their attempts at going home again. Director Kauffman and her cast do an admirable job with the script they've been given; and the effect is always engaging but seldom touching. As one watches these lost souls flounder about in the dark, a lyric by another song writer, Pete Seeger, comes to mind: "Oh, when will they ever learn? / Oh, when will they ever learn?"

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Sundown, Yellow Moon: A Nighttime Play with Sones
By Rachel Bonds
Music and Lyrics: The Bengsons Additional Lyrics: Rachel Bonds Director: Anne Kauffman
Cast: Eboni Booth (Joey); Lilli Cooper (Ray); Peter Friedman (Tom); Greg Keller (Ted Driscoll); Anne L. Nathan (Jean); Michael Pemberton (Bobby/DJ); JD Taylor (Carver)
Set Designer: Lauren Helpern
Costume Designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting Designers: Isabella Byrd & Matt Frey
Sound Designer: Leah Gelpe
Running Time: 90 minutes, without intermission
Presented by Ars Nova and WP Theater
McGinn/Cazale Theater, 2162 Broadway at West 76th Street

From 2/28/17; opened 3/14/17; closing 4/1/17
Reviewed by Charles Wright at the March 9th press performance

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