“Once In Love with . . .”
Just because a subject is serious doesn’t mean it can’t be funny. Or such would seem to have been the case with Lindsey Ferrentino’s thinking when she wrote Amy and the Orphans, now at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre. On the other hand, just because you want your play to be funny doesn’t mean it will be. Which is only one of several problems with Amy and the Orphans.Ferrentino (Ugly Lies the Bone), a rising young writer whose This Flat Earth is next up on the Playwrights Horizons schedule, has chosen a topic close to her personal life. It’s the story of a woman born with Down Syndrome in the days when, as the playwright notes was the case with her own Aunt Amy (1964-2014), children with the condition were called things like “Mongolian idiots.” I remember well the common use of the first word.
Many, rather than being raised and cared for by their parents, were packed off to mental institutions. If they were lucky, like the Amy in Ferrentino’s play, one or both of their parents occasionally visited; other family members were likely to have neglected them, or so Ferrentino suggests, based on her own aunt’s experiences.
I can’t say how widespread this attitude was or when it changed; happily, in every case I know of personally when a family had a child with a disability, that child was given so much love and parental care it would have made non-disabled kids jealous.
Amy and the Orphans dramatizes this dilemma by uncomfortably splitting the narrative into two alternating threads, one in the past (presumably in the 60s), after Amy’s birth, focusing on her parents, Sarah (Diane Davis) and Bobby (Josh McDermott), the other in the present, just after Bobby’s death.
In the first, an extended flashback, Sarah and Bobby are at some sort of retreat dealing with her depression in the wake of a decision that only becomes clear as the action progresses. In the second, Amy’s siblings, Jacob (Mark Blum) and Maggie (Debra Monk), have flown to New York, he from California and she from Chicago, to inform the now middle-aged Amy (Jamie Brewer) of their father’s death.
Amy is living under state care at a Queens residence, where her dedicated and capable caretaker is Kathy (Vanessa Aspillaga), a pregnant Long Islander. Jacob and Maggie must drive a rental car to the facility and get Amy so she can accompany them to Montauk, at the far end of Long Island, for their father’s funeral. Kathy, who is required to accompany her charge, will drive.
Ferrentino pads out the plot by a variety of desperate comic strategies, like reducing Sarah and Bobby’s problem—which we must wait to figure out—to sexual game playing. When Sarah engages Bobby in an exercise where they must go back and forth relating the facts of their lives, “until we believe them,” he responds, “I have an erection.” In fact, the overweight Bobby plays all these scenes with his shirt off. There are some moments you might consider touching (both emotionally and physically) but, mostly, the marital exchanges seek laughs from Bobby’s horniness.
The main thread, set decades later, focuses on the relationship of Jacob and Maggie to the institutionalized sister they largely ignored until now. Jacob and Maggie, however, are written and played as farcically obnoxious New York Jews. Despite their good intentions—underlined by Jacob’s patronizingly annoying attempts to explain Bobby’s death to Amy—they lack the crediblity required for us to see them as flawed humans confronting their guilt. As written and played, their sister comes off as the wisest of the three.
Blum and Monk, among New York’s most respected performers, have not been served well by the script or director Scott Ellis’s thumb on the comedy scale.
Woeful jokes are mined from the sixtiesh Jacob’s wearing of braces and his conversion from Judaism to Born Again Christianity. Maggie, for her part, is a shrill, pushy know-nothing who shouts at her brother every time he mentions Christmas instead of Hanukkah. Then there are the Long Island Expressway jokes, the carsick business, Amy’s boyfriend’s movie star name, etc.
There’s also a big emotional reveal that’s intended to crush the comic shenanigans with a shocker about Amy’s past. While it’s feasible that something like it could have happened, it comes off here more as melodramatic plot boiling than authentic experience.
Just as New Jersey has replaced Brooklyn as the knee-jerk locale de résistance, Ferrentino uses Long Island for cheap yocks (I saw someone actually applaud at its mention). The loud, potty-mouthed Kathy, described in the script as “the walking embodiment of Long Island,” is played by the talented Aspillaga with the most irritatingly overdone Italian-American Long Island accent you never want to hear. She’d be more convincing if she dialed it down a bit; also, like so many actors in our increasingly nonsmoking culture, Aspillaga should learn how to hold an unlit cigarette the way a real smoker would.
The only thing worthwhile in this uncomfortable enterprise is the presence of Jamie Brewer, someone who actually has Down Syndrome, as Amy, albeit on a relatively high-functioning level. This is a breakthrough for performers with Down Syndrome.
Each week, at designated performances, Edward Barbanell, another Down Syndrome actor, takes over, with Amy changed to Andy. The 33-year-old Brewer, despite her wig, looks too young for her role, but she carries it off with spunk and bravado, giving the production its most endearing and human performance.
Rachel Hauck’s set, apart from the paneled room used for Bobby and Sarah’s exercises, combines movable, neutral, Lucite-like walls with sliding scenic units to help morph from one place to another. Kenneth Posner’s lighting is of considerable assistance in altering the visual moods. Alejo Vietti’s present-day costumes look fine but, Sarah’s bell-bottoms aside, little else about the flashback scenes clearly defines the period.
One of Amy’s characteristics is a love of movies, her dad having taken her to many when he visited, so she’s memorized loads of classic lines. In one of the play’s more inventive moments, she ends the play in front of a red velour curtain, rattling off a string of them. I'd like to offer Ms. Brewer one she doesn’t mention: “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
Laura Pels Theatre
111 W. 46th St., NYC
Through April 22