Thursday, June 9, 2016

21. Review: INDIAN SUMMER (seen June 7, 2016)

“Sandy at the Beach with George”
Stars range from 5-1.

In Gregory S. Moss’s Indian Summer, at Playwrights Horizons, George is an eccentric, full-bearded, humorously crabby, Tevye-like grandpa with an air of the beachcomber story-teller about him. It’s the kind of role made for Jonathan Hadary (whose résumé includes Tevye), who, indeed, plays the part in Moss’s “love letter to Rhode Island.” George, a widower, is the fourth-wall-breaking narrator in this washed out, elegiac dramedy, which centers on the summertime coming of age of his 16-year-old grandson, Daniel (Owen Campbell)—until it doesn’t. 

Jonathan Hadary. Photo: Joan Marcus.
It all takes place on a sunny Rhode Island beach, crafted against a sky-blue background framed within a rectangular, polished wood proscenium by Dane Laffrey with 15,000 pounds of actual sand to represent the dunes. Eric Southern has lit it elegantly to suggest different times of day and shifting moods, while Stowe Nelson’s quality sound design introduces the whoosh of the waves for added atmosphere.
Joe Tippett, Owen Campbell, Elise Kibler. Photo: Joan Marcus.
You’ve probably already seen some version of this two-hour scenario on film or stage. George is a longtime resident of (but not native to) a beachside community on the Rhode Island shore, and Daniel, whose mother is off “finishing some things up,” is spending the summer with him. Daniel’s a nerdy, scrawny kid who seems to have an unhealthily close relationship with his mother; this is a boy who, at his mom's suggestion, crochets to relieve stress. He may appear sexually ambivalent, but Moss nonetheless has him falling in love with Isabella “Izzy” Rizzo (Elise Kibler), the loud, profane, and sexy local girl he meets not so cute on the beach when she accuses him of stealing her six-year-old brother’s broken toy pail.
Joe Tippett, Elise Kibler. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Their friendship—opposed by George, who considers Izzy’s large, Sicilian-American family “low class”—begins with a hint of violence when Izzy says she usually punches those she dislikes, which would include outsiders like Daniel, called “summer people” by the locals; nonetheless, despite the tensions of their insider-outsider relationship, Izzy finds herself inexplicably drawn to him. The fly in the ointment is Izzy’s musclebound, immature, bullying (but really sweet) boyfriend, the Irish-American Jeremy (Joe Tippett), who senses a threat in Daniel’s presence.  
Owen Campbell, Joe Tippett, Elise Kibler. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Izzy and Jeremy, working-class stereotypes (although Jeremy is older than his childish behavior suggests), speak with vulgarity-peppered Rhode Island accents; for all their bravado, however, they reveal, unpersuasively, the penetrating souls of poets. Izzy, who writes down the meaning of words Daniel says that she doesn’t know (like “bereaved” and “provisional”), is elated when she stumps Daniel by calling herself an “autodidact.” Such moments have a passing charm but only serve to heighten the characters’ literary affectations.
Joe Tippet, Owen Campbell. Photo: Joan Marcus.
This feeling grows stronger in act two, much of which is devoted to characters engaging in role-playing duologues; although not really believable these have some smart, even touching moments, but they go too far when George asks the 17-year-old Izzy to wear the dress of his late wife, Milly, and improvise a conversation in her persona. The normally brazen Izzy not only does so with the genius of a Meryl Streep, she even offers an extemporaneous description of what it feels like to die that could never have come from her mouth. If she were so smart, I doubt she’d have made the life-altering decision she does before the play concludes. And then there’s George, to whom the play sharply shifts its attention away from Daniel at the end. He too makes a choice that, for all the wisdom he now and then shares, seems more a playwright’s device than what this person, as we’ve seen him, would do.
Elise Kibler, Owen Campbell. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The ensemble performs enthusiastically under Carolyn Cantor’s direction but the result is more external than internal. Joe Tippett, a scene stealer in the recent Familiar, is so here again with a showy performance that captures the exaggerations of Jeremy’s buff braggart but with so much vigor you can see his pumped-up Thespian veins popping. Kibler looks bodacious in her cut off short-shorts (Kaye Voyce did the spot-on costumes) but she, too, forces Izzy’s extreme characteristics, making her a Rhode Island faux-version of Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinnie. Campbell’s Daniel, like Kibler’s Izzy, is another example of an older actor playing a much younger role and therefore compelled to compensate with artfully artificial choices. Hadary, of course, is playing a Hadary role so there’s nothing new to say about it.
Jonathan Hadary, Owen Campbell, Elise Kibler. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Indian Summer touches on themes of growing up, sexuality, love, death, belonging, identity, and grief, and the fatalism implied by the line, “Fuck you, Mortal,” but little of it resonates beyond what we’ve seen in so many other plays. George’s occasional commentaries on the mysteries of life, particularly of the ocean, add to the insistent poetic mood, as when he explains “Indian Summer,” but not much to the progress of the plot.

it's a phenomenon we call,
politically and geographically incorrect as it may be,
“Indian Summer”—
that margin of sun-lit warmth after the end of August that always feels exceptional,
like a pocket of unexpected time,
a little reprieve between seasons,
in which things
lives and stories
are given a chance to collect themselves
to reconfigure
and, possibly, to CHANGE . . .
where one finds one’s self invited,
by God, or Nature, or the whims of climate,
to merely enjoy the surprise of it . . .
Jonathan Hadary. Photo: Joan Marcus.
If that sounds inviting, you may wish to try a splash in Indian Summer’s shallow surf.


Playwrights Horizons
425 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through June 26