Friday, May 24, 2013



Occasionally the frequently tedious job of seeing so many low-budget productions in small, largely unheralded venues pays dividends when you come across a new talent in writing, design, or performance. Although it sometimes happens that a show boasts more than one talent, it’s not as common for multiple talents to reside in the same individual, especially when that person is both playwright and actor. A good example, and someone I’d be surprised isn’t heard of more often in the future, is Abby Rosebrock, a slim, toothy blonde from South Carolina who wrote and stars in DIFFERENT ANIMALS, now being shown (but soon closing) in the smaller of the two spaces at the Cherry Lane Theatre. This play, directed by Bruce Ornstein, with a cast of highly talented non-Equity actors, is far from perfect and, at over two hours, it could use a sharp pair of scissors to help keep its audience more consistently involved. On the other hand, my companion, a veteran theatre director for over 50 years, could not get over it, and kept repeating to me that it was one of the best plays he’s seen in the last five years, and that Rosebrock’s performance was unforgettable. I agree with the second opinion, not so much with the first.

            Rosebrock’s Southern Gothic concoction imagines a middle-class couple in Spartanburg, SC, the young wife, Jessica Tarver (Cesa Pledger), having a hot and heavy affair with the handsome young minister, William Burnip (Brady Kirchberg), while her husky, middle-aged husband, Leo (Dirk Keysser), is an object of lust for his sexually ramped up office mate, Molly Gardner (Ms. Rosebrock). Eventually, Leo, Molly, and Jessica end up living together in a ménage a trois, and there is even a scene where all three of them enjoy a romp in a bathtub (yes, another BATHTUB SCENE!). There’s a frontal nudity moment for Leo, but the women remain fully covered by bubbles. The play touches on religion and faith, abortion, fidelity, and mental illness, often merely for laughs, but at other times quite seriously.

The characters, dialogue, and situations start off being somewhat comically over the top, with lots of hilariously filthy conversation, but the play’s descent from light comedy to dark drama creates a sense of stylistic imbalance. Still, Rosebrock’s acting keeps you riveted. As the play proceeds, Molly’s sexual obsessiveness, and tendency to express herself in excited outbursts, becomes increasingly less funny and more and more threatening. The joyous eruptions soon turn to nasty accusations and threats. Any associations between her and the Glenn Close character in FATAL ATTRACTION are quite deliberate, as that movie is referenced in the dialogue (as are other films, including A Streetcar Named Desire and The Godfather II). Rosebrock’s Molly is about as intense a characterization of a psychotic as one can take in such a tiny venue. I sat in the front row, and being so close to her as she became ever more manic (with dashes of zany good will popping up at the most surprising moments) sometimes made me uncomfortable. The insecure glances in her eyes, the constant shifting from grimness to smiles, the volcanically angry outbursts (her excoriation of Leo’s sexual inadequacies is both a remarkable piece of writing and acting), and the sense of being so wired she seems to have Starbucks in her veins, are enough to cover a myriad of playwriting flaws. Molly is both highly intelligent and ditzy; for all her knowledge and articulateness, she can still say things like “I wanted to marry Hugo Chavez and be the next Evita,” which drew a big laugh.

I’ve spent a lot of time on Rosebrock’s performance, but the ensemble around her makes an excellent foil. Each character is full blown, vocally and physically right, and emotionally accurate. This applies even to the seven-year old darling, Maria Panoski, who appears as Jessica’s little girl late in the play. Her brief presence is one of the indelible highlights of the production.

On the down side are the play’s excessive scene changes. Fortunately, they’re well choreographed and smoothly efficient, use effectively designed (by Matthew J. Fick) sliding units that can be transformed from one purpose to another, and are covered by bluegrass music (or something like it). But they drag down the overall pacing of the show and point out the playwright and director’s need to find a means to overcome the problems implicit in so episodically structured a play.

DIFFERENT ANIMALS may have problems but, more often than not, it’s barking up the right tree.