Thursday, March 17, 2016

169. Review: THE WAY WEST (seen March 15, 2016)

"Westward, No!"
Stars range from 5-1.
Chances are you know the feeling of helpless embarrassment after having a credit card declined when dealing directly with a vendor. If you were lucky, it was a technical glitch you later ironed out; if, though, like Manda (Nadia Bowers) in Mona Mansour’s THE WAY WEST, a bleak, unhappy comedy at the Labyrinth, it meant your credit line was maxed out, your embarrassment was mingled with gut-wrenching fear. And you would know just how Manda feels when she can’t pay the delivery guy for the pizza he’s just delivered to feed her, her mother, and her sister. The possibility of starvation may be staring Ms. Mansour’s people in the eyes, but, her point having been made, the focus shifts—as it already has on earlier occasions—to an unconvincing finale that tries to put a hopeful face on the increasing hopelessness we’ve been watching for 90 minutes.

Anna O'Donoghue, Deirdre O'Connell, Nadia Bowers. Photo: Monique Carboni.
THE WAY WEST is set in the fiscally challenged California city of Stockton, where the financially reckless Mom (Deirdre “Didi” O’Connell), in her 60s, lives with her daughter, Meesh (Anna O’Donoghue), single and more like a feckless teen than a woman in her 30s. Big sister Manda (Nadia Bowers), also single, has flown in from Chicago; she’s staying at the family’s deteriorating home to help Mom fix her screwed-up finances, for which bankruptcy seems the only way out.
Nadia Bowers, Anna O'Donoghue, Deirdre O'Connell. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Ms. Mansour makes several dubious choices, the most awkward of which has Mom—whose ignorance of the most basic principles of household management inclines more toward stupidity than carelessness—serve as a verbally gifted narrator. This happens at selected points as she tells her rapt daughters stories of survival about the westward-bound pioneers who crossed America in wagon trains under terrible hardships. (When the play premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, under Amy Morton’s direction, these sections were accompanied by projections and songs played by the daughters on guitars. At the Labyrinth, Mom presses a button on an old cassette recorder to introduce background music.) In Mimi O’Donnell’s New York staging, it’s never very clear whether the stories are being told as part of the realistic action or if they’re a magical realism infusion. Or both.
Deirdre O'Connell, Portia. Photo: Monique Carboni.
One might also question the sudden revelation of Manda’s credit card debacle; to discuss it would be too much of a spoiler so I'll say only that the circumstances, demonstrating how much she, like everyone else, is in denial, seem too contrived to be convincing. Manda’s relationship with her ex-boyfriend, Luis (Alfredo Narcisco), who agrees to help clean up Mom’s finances, hints at a possible way out, but this thread simply vanishes. There are also production head scratchers, such as why the same very recognizable actor—burly, bearded, and silver-haired Curran Conner—plays, without a radical change in demeanor, both Meesh’s boyfriend, Robbie, and the pizza guy. All it does is add an unnecessary distraction (is Robbie delivering pizzas?) to the climactic scene.
Alfredo Narcisco, Deirdre O'Connell, Nadia Bowers. Photo: Monique Carboni.
As the play advances, we see how each character—even the seemingly successful Manda, a development officer (a.k.a. fund raiser) at a Chicago university—is responsible for their own problems while remaining in irritating denial about them. Mom, especially as played by the gifted Ms. O’Connell, who originated the role with Steppenwolf, is colorfully ditzy, but not sufficiently so to make us feel she didn’t ask for what was coming. For instance, despite having access to thousands of dollars in a trust fund, she blows it on a foolish investment to help a friend, Tress (Portia), in a questionable business venture that quickly fizzles.

To further underline the decline of the American dream in this family’s particular wasteland, Ms. Mansour not only inflicts Mom with symptoms of physical distress but finds devastating ways to damage her house, inside and out: a fire, car crashes, a power outage. Ms. Mansour may be saying that the American pioneer spirit of survival in the face of every obstacle, on which Mom keeps harping, will somehow prevail, but what she’s shown about this family suggests not that they’ll succeed but that even worse awaits in the future. THE WAY WEST isn’t funny enough to gloss over how depressing it is.

The cast is uniformly polished, but the honors go to Ms. O’Connell for making her insufferable character at least barely sufferable. The play’s uneasy blend of naturalism with theatricalism isn’t instantly visible in David Meyer’s impressively dingy living room set, occupying one long wall of the tiny theatre; a picture window looks out on the wide-open vista of what seems more a Nevada-like desert than the farmland outside Stockton. You can practically hear the sound of symbols crashing. Lighting designer Bradley King gives it pretty sunset colors, and when the rear wall slides open magically at the end, it comes into its own.
Nadia Bowers, Deirdre O'Connell, Anna O'Donoghue. Photo: Monique Carboni.
If you’re heading to the Labyrinth, take the way west on Bank Street. A little further and you’ll reach the Hudson, perhaps a more satisfying destination than THE WAY WEST itself.


Labyrinth Theater
155 Bank Street, NYC
Through April 3