Friday, January 16, 2015

137. Review of A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN NOVEMBER ON THE BANKS OF THE GREATEST OF THE GREAT LAKES (January 13, 2014)

"A Savory Play in January on the Boards of Stage II at City Center"


From left: Gerry Bamman, Mia Katigbak, Nina Hellman, Brooke Ishibashi, Heather Alicia-Simms, Jessica Almasy, Christian Felix. Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton.
Playwrights have long recognized that one of the most effective ways to explore the dynamics of interaction among friends and family members is to gather them at someone’s home for dinner. Not infrequently, dinner in such cases happens on holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving, the annual eating and greeting rituals when families, no matter how far they’ve scattered, come together for mutual gobbling, guzzling, gabbing, and griping. Kate Benson’s tasty concoction, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN NOVEMBER ON THE BANKS OF THE GREATEST OF THE GREAT LAKES, is the most recent addition to the Thanksgiving canon, joining other recent examples such as The Pensacola Commons and Jericho.
From left: Heather Alicia-Simms, Nina Hellman, Brooke Ishibashi; above: Ben Williams, Hubert Point-DuJour. Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton.
Dinner—or its preparation, at any rate—is the gravy lubricating this imaginative New Georges production, produced at City Centers Stage II in association with the Women’s Project. First seen last year in a more limited run at Dixon Place, for which it received near universal huzzahs, the production has returned with most of the original cast. I imagine it will again warrant widespread praise, but I’m not quite ready to give it a Michelin star. A BEAUTIFUL DAY is an offbeat work that not everyone will swallow easily; there was at least one early departure when I attended, which is a shame because, apart from an ambiguous ending, theres a lot here to savor.
From left: Christian Felix, Jessica Almasy, Brooke Ishibashi, Mia Katigbak; above: Ben Williams, Hubert Point-DuJour. Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton.
Ms. Benson, yet another product of Brooklyn College’s remarkably successful MFA playwriting program, imagines that the Wembly family is assembling for their annual feast at the shore-front Great Lakes home of one of three middle-aged sisters, whimsically named (as is everybody), Trifle (Nina Hellman), Cherry Pie (Heather Alicia Simms), and Cheesecake (Brooke Ishibashi). What makes the otherwise unexceptional event exceptional is the premise that the dinner is viewed as a competitive sports event, a metaphor that director Lee Sunday Evans catches handily and runs with, scoring a theatrical touchdown. (The conceit is reminiscent of Woody Allen's 1972 movie, BANANAS, which opens with sportscaster Howard Cosell commentating on a Latin American revolution, and ends with him doing the same at the consummation of a marriage.) She’s assisted by flawless, perfectly timed teamwork from an ethnically diverseand thereby universalensemble.

The actors generally speak Ms. Benson’s juicily bite-sized lines, with their built-in stumbles and repetitions, directly to the audience rather than to each other; their heightened delivery seems as precisely scored as the specifics of their movements. Each step in the preparation for and execution of the big meal is carried out in perfectly choreographed, almost dance-like staging; although considerable attention has been paid by costume designer Kathleen Doyle to the quirky yet perfectly character-defining clothes everyone wears, there are no props or furniture at all, everything (including the huge turkey being roasted) being suggested through mime, sometimes literal and sometimes fanciful. It's a far cry from James A. Herne's 1892 play, SHORE ACRES, when a full holiday dinner, bird and all, was cooked and eaten during the performance.
From left: Gerry Bamman, Mia Katigbak, Kristine Haruna Lee, Jessica Almasy, Christian Felix, Heather Alicia-Simms, Nina Hellman. Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton.
Sara C. Walsh’s clever setting has the general appearance of a basketball court, with complex floor markings denoting mapped-out strategy patterns. Upstage is a high, paneled wall containing a door, and a large glass window through which a wall with old-fashioned wallpaper is visible. Above is a windowed room in which two sportscasters, using microphones, observe and comment on the goings-on below, including moment by moment decisions, and even facial expressions.

Instead of names, the sportscasters are designated as # (Ben Williams), who does the “action,” and @ (Hubert Point-DuJour), the color commentary guy; both are new to the production. As they describe the play-by-play, they also engage in occasional banter expressing their own competitive natures. Their dialogue, like that of most sportscasters, is sprinkled with references to the weather and scenery, and there are laugh-worthy memories of Thanksgiving past disasters, like “the Gravy Boat Episode of 1979.” Various sports are alluded to, but football seems the predominant image as we move through four quarters of action in 75 intermissionless (halftime is over almost before it's begun) minutes.

We watch as the three sisters struggle to assemble a large, round table, worrying if there’s enough room for everyone; discover that Cherry Pie’s divorced daughter, Gumbo (Christine Haruna Lee), “a bit of a wildcard . . . who could really foul things up,” as one announcer says, has changed her plans about not coming; and hear the front door buzzer signaling the arrival of the relatives, among them the grandparents, Grandada (Gerry Bamman) and SnapDragon (Mia Katigbak), he nearly deaf, she recently blind, and a slew of granddaughters, their partners, their children (including twins), and a horde of great grandbabies (unseen); 13 of these characters are played by Jessica Almasy and Christian Felix, although just who they are at any moment isn’t always clear.

Things really get hairy when the turkey and its stuffing are being prepared, each move of which is analyzed by # and @ for its gamesmanship and skill, with Grandma SnapDragon showing her mettle in the clutch when disaster threatens. After all the mishaps and fuss, dinner is rapidly devoured, at which point the play, already surrealistic, shifts to a much more bizarre level with an unexpected absurdist conclusion concerning the army of great grandbabies that you'll find either devilishly pertinent or head-scratchingly puzzling. 

A BEAUTIFUL DAY, while never truly hilarious, invokes many chuckles, and you’ll probably grin a lot while watching it. Still, the one-joke concept, like the turkey, does tend to dry out after a while, and you'll have to taste it for yourself to see if Ms. Benson's ending is a desert worth waiting for. 

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN NOVEMBER ON THE BANKS OF THE GREATEST OF THE GREAT LAKES
Stage II at City Center
131 W. 55th Street, NYC
Through February 7



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