Thursday, November 8, 2018

116 (2018-2019): Review: BEAUTIFUL DAY WITHOUT YOU (seen November 7, 2018)

“Not Such a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

Origin Theatre Company, founded in 2002, prides itself on being “the ONLY Theatre company in New York dedicated solely to producing American or New York premieres from Europe.” For 11 years, the company also has presented Irish plays at a city-wide festival called Origin’s 1st Irish Ireland Month.

Dan Butler, Richarda Abrams. Photo: Deen van Meer.
Their latest endeavor, a world premiere, was commissioned from multilingual, award-winning Italian playwright-actor-director Marco Calvani. Beautiful Day Without You, his first play written in English, proves his linguistic fluency, vulgarities included, but I’m taking a raincheck regarding his playwriting abilities.
Richarda Abrams, Dan Butler. Photo: Deen van Meer.
Calvani’s program note tells us Beautiful Day demonstrates the need to break down the barriers between people, especially in our notably divisive times. Unfortunately, the play’s fuzzy writing, overabundance of topical subjects, and confusing production succeed more in throwing up new barriers than bringing down the old ones. Moreover, by setting the play in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, with his three characters all being Americans of different ethnicities—mixed European, African-American, and Asian—his play has nothing notably European, much less Italian, about it.
Anne Son, Dan Butler. Photo: Deen van Meer.
Following an inexplicable opening in which director Erwin Maas has the actors running in place at top speed (a non-helpful device he repeats at the end), we see what happens after Janet Blount (Richard Abrams), a middle-aged, black nurse, rushes hysterically into the living room of the obnoxious Bob Sacco (the nearly as obnoxious Bob “Bulldog” Briscoe of TV’s “Frasier”). Shouting at the top her lungs, she accuses Bob’s Doberman, Blaze, of killing her little dog, Pippi. This sets up the appearance of animal control officer Rachel Huang (Anne Son), a lesbian, assigned to investigate the case and arrange for its legal outcome.
Dan Butler, Richarda Abrams. Photo: Deen van Meer.
The dialogue exposes us to racism, homophobia, addiction, same-sex marriage, revenge, atheistic blasphemy, animal welfare, memory loss, and so on. But the characters are so superficial and the treatment of these issues so commonplace they seem like dramatic garnish than matters of serious concern.
Anne Son. Photo: Deen van Meer.
Calvani threads many of them them through the hateful comments Bob continuously screams at Janet and Rachel, as he complains about the death of his wife, Rose, and the neighborhood’s drug and crime infestation. But there’s also Rachel’s obsession about finding the dealer who sold drugs to her wife; Bob’s succumbing to a stroke; the churchgoing Janet’s ministering to him as she strives to express Christian forgiveness; Bob’s begging Janet to kill him; and, feeblest of all, Bob’s clumsy attempts at poetry expressing his love for Rose.
Dan Butler, Anne Son. Photo: Deen van Meer.
The chief locales are Bob’s grungy townhouse residence and a yard in the nearby “projects,” where Janet lives. Calvini’s script suggests a realistic set, at least for Bob’s deteriorating environment. Oddly, however, director Erwin Maas, in collaboration with set, lighting, and costume designer Guy De Lancey, instead drapes not only the stage floor (whose wavy surface the shoeless actors must navigate with care) and its few furnishings—chiefly a couch and a bench—in white cloth, but the entire auditorium, seats and floor. It almost feels like the characters in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard will soon be arriving to yank off the dust covers as they repopulate the estate.
Anne Son, Dan Butler. :Photo: Deen van Meer.
This minimalist approach, lacking even projections on the black, blank, upstage wall, seems to be one of Maas’s directorial tics; although he left the auditorium alone, he used similarly empty designs for Poison and The Hundred We Are. Given the naturalism of the performances in Beautiful Day, the non-realistic setting becomes a distraction, its purpose being unclear, and the locales not always being clearly distinguishable. Moreover, the lack of specificity in the environment robs the action of atmospherics that might otherwise support its emotional values. What happens in Beautiful Day is essentially realistic; it’s not theatre.
Anne Son, Richarda Abrams, Dan Butler. Photo: Deen van Meer.
De Lancey’s other contributions are similarly problematic. The “uniform” he provides Rachel, a brown outfit of matching slacks and jacket, looks more like a fashionable ensemble tailored to the actress’s elegantly trim proportions than anything official. When she removes the jacket, she reveals a beautifully fitted white blouse. And, with lighting on such an abstract set being so important, one wonders why some scenes are so dull, with actors’ faces needing more heightening.
Butler, incessantly spouting curmudgeonly nastiness, rarely achieves Bob’s potentially comedic goals and is too irritatingly unsympathetic to gain sympathy for this wounded man. Huang, her considerable beauty unnecessarily enhanced by too much makeup, plays many of Rachel’s scenes facing front and fidgeting with her clothes, as if hoping her looks might somehow make her more convincing. And, while Janet is also too artificial, Abrams comes closest to creating a recognizable human being in her portrayal.
Yesterday was indeed beautiful but the same can’t be said of A Beautiful Day Without You.


West End Theatre
263 W. 86th St., NYC
Through November 25