Thursday, September 21, 2017

72 (2017-2018): Review: THE VIOLIN (seen September 20, 2017)

“Out of Tune”

Three dim bulbs of varying wattage gather in a shabby, realistically cluttered shop owned by the oldest of them. They plan a shady job that will net them a load of dough. As in all such deals, though, things don’t go exactly according to plan That, of course, is the essential setup of David Mamet’s 1976 American Buffalo. It's also what drives Dan McCormick’s far less memorable three-hander, The Violin, now being presented by the Directors Company at 59E59 Theaters.
Kevin Isola, Peter Bradbury, Robert LuPone. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In American Buffalo the object of the conspirators’ greedy affection is, as its title informs us, a rare buffalo nickel; the title of The Violin alludes to what its crooks have their eyes on, a 1710 Stradivarius left behind in the cab the dimmest bulb, a doofus named Terry (Kevin Isola), was driving one freezing winter night before he decided to quit the job he’d only just begun. His reason? The itching of his palms told him money was coming his way . . . “Big time.”

Kevin Isola, Robert LuPone, Peter Bradbury. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Terry, a pathetically hopeful smile plastered on his face, is the mentally challenged younger brother of the Lower East Side hustler Bobby (Peter Bradbury), a crude smartass who hangs out with Terry at the crumbling Avenue A tailor shop of family friend Gio (Robert LuPone). Terry and Bobby share a love-hate relationship tied to issues regarding the loss of their late father and mother, a story about which the deeply involved Gio will inevitably fill in the details.
Peter Bradbury. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
After first threatening to smash the instrument Terry found, Bobby realizes it’s worth $4 million; how he learns this is never explained. When he discovers that the violin’s owner is desperate to recover it, Bobby, himself the son of a mobster, begins plotting how to extort a huge payoff for its return. This precipitates the play’s central action involving not only the logistics of the exchange but the moral and legal consequences.
Robert LuPone. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The white-haired Gio, older and wiser, a bachelor whose greatest pleasure is listening to old records of Italian opera (creating a job for sound designer Hao Bai), has dedicated his life to the humble trade in which he takes great pride (hard to accept in what’s shown of Gio’s skills), regardless of its emotional and monetary constraints. He’s the voice of reason, warning against the consequences of what the aggressively stupid Bobby, aided by the puppy-like Terry, are planning. Until he isn’t. Which is before he is again.
Peter Bradbury, Robert LuPone. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In a sense, this is an existential melodrama about how our choices define us; Gio’s dialogue, in particular, is rife with references to the choices each of the men has made. Everything that happens in the plot is put in the context of a choice, good or bad. At one point, Gio says:

And a lot’a times in this life ya have to fight for what ya believe, to stand up to people. ‘Cause there’s always gonna be someone who don’t like your choices in life.  Especially when your choices makes theirs look bad.
Kevin Isola, Peter Bradbury. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Eventually, Gio delivers an aria-like speech containing a big reveal in which he discloses his most significant choice, one that has had a major impact on all three of their lives.

The Violin is about as old-fashioned, formulaic, and predictable as they come; it is straightforward naturalism without any of the fanciful, dreamlike incursions with which so many of today’s playwrights like to distract us. The ending can be surmised at least two-thirds of the way through. Given its locale, a rundown tailor shop on Avenue A (perfectly realized in Harry Feiner’s wonderfully dilapidated set), and the working class backgrounds of its characters, the play’s language is sometimes coarse. Never, though, does it rise to the level of poetic profanity on which American Buffalo’s floats. And never does it make its far-fetched dramatics convincing.
Peter Bradbury, Robert LuPone, Kevin Isola. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The characters, who look right in Michael McDonald’s costumes, are anything but consistent; Terry may be slow but uses words like "epiphany" and is quick enough to shoot off a John Wayne riposte with perfect timing. Still, there’s no way a guy like this, who doesn’t know what a tampon is and begins chewing on one he finds, could ever get a job driving a New York cab.

The occasionally eloquent Gio, capable of rattling off all the legal reasons for not carrying out the caper, is not only capable of malapropisms like calling macular degeneration “immaculate degenerate” but of making a choice that goes entirely against everything he stands for. Dramatic exigency takes precedence over dramatic honesty.
Kevin Isola, Robert LuPone, Peter Bradbury. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Under Joseph Discher’s direction, the pacing and energy maintain attention but there are too many times that the vastly experienced actors seem to be wearing signs saying, “Look, I’m acting.” You admire their technical facility but they push too hard to be fully believable; a large part of the blame rests with the insufficiently credible characters they’re playing.
Kevin Isola, Robert LuPone. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
During the play, Terry tries playing the violin he’s found. Like his playing, Dan McCormick’s The Violin is seriously out of tune.


59E59 Theaters/Theater A
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through October 14