Tuesday, March 21, 2017

158. Review: SUNDOWN, YELLOW MOON (see March 21, 2017)

“You Can’t Go Home Again”

Rachel Bonds calls her melancholic, structurally wandering Sundown, Yellow Moon, “a nighttime play with songs”; indeed, this coproduction of Ars Nova and WP Theater takes place largely at night and it does have songs, less than a handful, two of them coming in the final moments. (They’re pleasant but unexceptional guitar-strumming, country numbers by the Bengsons, an indie-folk team, with additional lyrics by Bonds.) The play’s title is from a lyric in Bob Dylan’s “If You See Her, Say Hello,” on his Blood on the Track album, referred to in the script.
Lilli Cooper, Peter Friedman. Photo: Ben Arons.
Otherwise, this is a quiet, drearily low-key, fitfully amusing, dramatically slender, hour-and-a-half slog through a family’s attempts to heal its psychic wounds. The family is that of a middle-aged, divorcé named Tom (Peter Friedman), a private school teacher, and his grown, twin daughters, Joey/Josephine (Eboni Booth) and Ray/Rayleen (Lilli Cooper). Its setting is Tom’s cabin in a rural Tennessee college town replete with musicians, poets, and intellectuals but, apparently, devoid of rednecks. 

Peter Friedman. Photo: Ben Arons.
Tom’s been suspended after a violent argument with his new headmaster, during which he accidentally slugged the guy’s wife while the students looked on. Joey and Ray have come home from their respective urban residences to help dad get through his misery. He’s also being assisted by a gentle young man with his own problems; this is Carver (JD Taylor), a counselor/therapist whose approval will be necessary before Tom can return to work. There are three other characters: a married couple, Jean (Anne L. Nathan) and Bobby (Michael Pemberton), Tom’s guitar-playing friends who jam with him, and Ted (Greg Keller), a poet.
Peter Friedman, Lilli Cooper. Photo: Ben Arons.
Although Tom is deep down in the dumps, it seems at first he’s showing symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Carver’s encouraged, for instance, that Tom was able to go to the Piggly Wiggly on his own, even though, as Ray discovers (a bit late, it seems), he bought nothing of substance and the fridge is practically empty. Joey, a vegan, has received a Fulbright to study in Germany for two years (her subject isn’t clear) but has trepidations about going. Ray’s a lesbian musician who’s stopped writing songs after breaking up with the woman she works for, the head of an arts funding organization. 
Eboni Booth, Greg Keller. Photo: Ben Arons.
Carver was involved as a boy in a scandalous relationship with a priest, which is about all we’re told of it; he once belonged to a local singing group but dropped out and stopped making music while the others all became famous. Ted—a married college teacher Joey meets and falls for at the local reservoir, where she goes swimming—blames his writer’s block on his novelist wife’s success.
Anne L. Nathan, Lilli Cooper, Michael Pemberton, Peter Friedman, Eboni Booth. Photo: Ben Arons.
It’s nice to see a play in which everyone, despite their own problems, is concerned about everyone else, but to make such a play interesting the stakes have to be higher. In Sundown no specific problem seems any more urgent than any other, and when it’s all over the persons most likely not to be concerned about anyone’s problems are the members of the audience. The otherwise fine ensemble can’t do more than give a superficially believable impression of these thinly drawn characters, and the usually reliable Anne Kaufmann’s lethargic direction only bogs things down more.
JD Taylor, Lilli Cooper. Photo: Ben Arons.
Things transpire on Lauren Helpern clunky, all-purpose unit set, the kind that tries to be simultaneously indoors and out. It’s a wall-less platform for the interior of Tom’s woodsy cabin surrounded by slender, unpainted boards that look both like tree cutouts (suggested by leaf-like designs overhead) and the vertical studs holding up the house; a jumbled assortment of step units at the front serve as steps and the rocky surfaces near the reservoir. Isabella Byrd and Matt Frey’s lighting does its best to create properly somber and romantic moods, with fine supplementation by Leah Gelpe's Chekhovian sound design reminding us of midsummer nature's presence.
Eboni Booth, Lilli Cooper, Peter Friedman. Photo: Ben Arons.
Sundown, Yellow Moon is one of those dully atmospheric plays about sad and lonely people where the actors speak in subdued, artificially naturalistic, voices, filled with sorrowful silences, and the conversation you have with your friend as you leave is livelier than anything you’ve heard on stage; where people walk through a furnished house to go swimming in a reservoir that appears to be right beneath an upstage doorway; where racially diverse actors are cast as the offspring of a white father in a Southern rural community, with not a hint explaining the relationship; where it’s a swelteringly humid summer but no one sweats and none of the men wear shorts; where a young woman accidentally meets a poet she heard read a poem perhaps 10 years earlier, when she was 17, and not only remembers him but the poem as well (her sister has a too-similar experience when she recalls first hearing Carver’s group as a child); where no one scene seems much more important than any other; where the dreamily beautiful girl seen in certain ads never materializes in the play itself; where a family songfest covers the lack of a satisfying denouement; where . . . well, I've already belabored the point.


Sundown, Yellow Moon
McGinn/Cazale Theatre
2163 Broadway, NYC
Through April 1