Monday, January 23, 2017

123. Review: ORANGE JULIUS (seen January 18, 2017)

“Not for Drinking”

I was disappointed recently when I noticed that the Orange Julius concession at a mall I’ve been frequenting for decades had gone out of business. I was equally disappointed by Basil Kreimendahl’s play, which uses the delicious soft drink’s name but has nothing—apart from a passing reference—in common with it. Orange Julius the play (which premiered in San Diego) is earnest, well-meaning, and politically correct but none of these ingredients is sufficient—at least in Dustin Wills’s decently acted and well-staged but often lethargic, hour-and-a-half production at the Rattlestick—to strongly recommend it.

Irene Sofia Lucio, Stephen Payne, Mary Testa. Photo: Sandra Coudert Graham. 
Kate Noll’s set places most of the action within a gritty garage, with a full-sized garage door upstage that the actors pull up sharply to open the space for scenes set during the Vietnam War. A door to the bathroom up right (the same onstage bathroom used by the audience) serves as a passageway to the house’s interior, while a door to the outside is up left. The garage serves as a neutral space for events running through the memory of the transmasculine (born female but identifying as male) Nut (Jess Barbagello), who introduces his long-suffering mother France (Mary Testa), his sister Crimp (Irene Sofia Lucia), and his Vietnam vet father, Julius (Stephen Payne). A brother is mentioned but never appears; his offstage presence seems unnecessary.
Jess Barbagello, Stephen Payne. Photo: Sandra Coudert Graham.
Simply stated, the lyrical play dramatizes the relationship of the family (and especially Nut’s) to Julius, who’s suffering the devastating, and soon to be fatal, cancerous effects of Agent Orange. As narrator, Nut jumps loosely back and forth in time with introductory remarks like: “I’m seven, or six, nine maybe eight,” or “I’m 12, 14 maybe 13” as he struggles to come to terms with a father who rarely touched him, and separated from, then reunited with his mother.

Nut longs to be accepted by his dad as a man, not a woman, which is emphasized in imagined flashbacks to Vietnam, where Nut becomes one of Julius’s combat buddies, alongside a gung-ho soldier called Ol’ Boy (Ruy Iskander); Nut, inspired by the war movies he used to watch with Julius on Veterans' Day, is imagining the experiences Julius himself (like so many veterans) has rarely talked about so he can bond, man to man, with him.
Jess Barbagello, Mary Testa, Irene Sofia Lucio. Photo: Sandra Coudert Graham.
Except for a moment of discomfort Nut remembers of his father innocently putting his hand on Nut’s knee while driving, the story he tells of growing up as the sexually uncertain daughter of a macho father is not particularly gripping or unusual. His personal issues and ultimate transgender status are so subtly presented that it’s easy to take them for granted. Orange Julius is anything but a polemic.
Jess Barbagello, Stephen Payne, Ruy Iskander. Photo: Sandra Coudert Graham.
The play’s loose, sometimes dreamlike, structure only serves to intensify its dramatic monotony. There are numerous incidents but, apart from seeing Julius’s physical and mental dissolution, there’s little enough tension or conflict to hold one’s attention or to make one wonder about what’s coming next. Nor does Kreimendahl offer any particularly provocative insights into the Agent Orange problem, other than to enumerate its potential effects.
Mary Testa, Jess Barbagello, Stephen Payne. Photo: Sandra Coudert Graham.
Under Wills’s direction, too many scenes are quiet and low-key, the domestic dynamic being altered mainly when the war scenes arrive with their dramatic lighting and smoke (designed by Barbara Samuels). Palmer Heffernan further heightens the atmosphere with music and sounds, especially when a chopper is heard overhead, but lights, smoke, and sound can only go so far in creating real dramatic tension.
Ruy Iskander, Jess Barbagello, Stephen Payne. Photo: Sandra Coudert Graham.
Payne is totally believable as the grizzled, grumpy, and ailing vet, and Testa is fine as a woman faced with a difficult domestic situation, although fans of her great comic skills won’t see much of them here. Iskander brings vitality to the rough and ready Ol’ Boy, Lucio is a sympathetic older sister, and Barbagello (also known as a playwright) is convincing as Nut. But none of these actors is able to give Orange Julius the juice it needs to overcome its dramatic weaknesses. 

The word "orange," of course, is being used in another context nowadays, and one with just as much potential for toxicity.  


Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre
64 Waverly Place, NYC

Through February 12