Sunday, January 20, 2019

150 (2018-2019): Review: TRICK OR TREAT (seen January 15, 2019)

"What the Hell Is a Justin Bieber?"

As I’ve frequently noted, one of the most persistent dramatic subjects in recent years concerns the dilemma of families dealing with parents suffering from Alzheimer’s. The latest example is Jack Neary’s spottily amusing, ultimately unsatisfying black comedy (or light tragedy?) Trick or Treat. It’s being presented at 59E59 Theaters by Northern Stage, a regional theatre in White River Junction, Vt., where it had its world premiere a year ago. All but one of the original ensemble are on hand, most notably Gordon Clapp, whom you may recall as Det. Gregg Medavoy on TV’s “NYPD Blue.”
Gordon Clapp, Jenni Putney. Photo: Heidi Bohnencamp. 
Clapp plays Johnny Moynihan, a part written for him. Johnny’s a working-class stiff, in his 60s, who’s spent 35 years in a janitorial job at the VA and speaks with a “"Pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd” accent. He lives with his Alzheimer’s-ridden wife, Nancy (Kathy Manfre), in a cozily cluttered, somewhat tattered old house (meticulously designed by Michael Ganio), replete with upstage staircase and landing.

It’s Halloween, there’s a lit-up jack-o-lantern near the front door, as well as an orange and black dish filled with the large candy bars—“not the cheap little Walmart bullshit things”—that Johnny and his wife take pride in handing out to local trick or treaters.
Jenni Putney, Gordon Clapp. Photo: Heidi Bohnencamp.
Johnny’s at sixes and sevens as he awaits the arrival of his daughter, Claire (Jenni Putney), while fending off the kids ringing his doorbell, one of them baffling the culturally oafish homeowner by saying he’s dressed as Justin Bieber. "What the hell is a Justin Bieber?" he wonders. The moment sets up what promises to be a comic tone but, while comedy often seems the driving impetus, the laughs come too infrequently and it’s not always easy to get a handle on just what feeling the playwright’s after.

Claire, who’s married to an Italian-American journalist, has come over after Johnny called her, thinking maybe he wants to discuss putting Nancy in a home. He manages to tell her, however, a story about having discovered Nancy using a child’s potty. Then, he confesses, when she failed to recognize him he became so depressed that he snuffed out her life with a pillow, justifying it as an act of mercy, like something  Kardashian, which he confuses with Kevorkian, would have done. I’m afraid the humor, such as it is, doesn’t get much better than that.
Kathy McCafferty, Jenni Putney, Gordon Clapp. Photo: Heidi Bohnencamp.
As Claire tries to digest the news (without bothering to run upstairs to check for herself), complications arise with the arrival of a fiery neighbor, Hannah (Kathy McCafferty, new to the cast), following Claire’s throwing the bowl of candy at her young daughter. Hannah, who quickly senses something’s not right, has a contentious relationship with the Moynihans because of something to do with Claire’s hot-tempered, policeman brother, Teddy (David Mason), said to be up for the job of police chief.
David Mason, Gordon Clapp. Photo: Heidi Bohnencamp.
Teddy himself appears and the tension between him and Hannah flares up as the Moynihans try to hide the news of Nancy’s demise and Hannah refuses to leave. Then comes the big surprise, something you may already have begun to guess at, that closes Act One.
David Mason, Gordon Clapp. Photo: Heidi Bohnencamp.
In Act Two, more complications arise, lies are exposed, awful family secrets are revealed, and Act One’s potentially comic complications surrounding the murder of a harmless, if demented, mother and wife slide into heavier, more traditionally dramatic territory.

If only the right attitude were found, in Neary’s writing and Carol Dunne’s direction, Trick or Treat, with its Halloween background, might have qualified as a chillingly humorous exercise, something in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry. But the play veers from comedy and even farce to melodramatic pathos, struggling to maintain a fundamental sense of believability.

As the incidents of Act One develop, it’s impossible not to question the relative reality of everyone’s response to the unfolding situation. One noteworthy bit of dramatic disjunction appears in how Johnny, shown throughout as fumbling, ignorant, and verbally challenged, delivers a lengthy, letter perfect, expository speech about the sanctity of “family,” which his own dysfunctional behavior has all along belied.
Jenni Putney, Gordon Clapp, David Mason. Photo: Heidi Bohnencamp.
Although each of the characters challenges credibility, the actors at least make them colorful. Clapp’s Johnny is convincingly petulant, narrow-minded, and thickheaded; Putney does well at portraying Claire as a concerned daughter; McCafferty’s hotheaded Hannah projects lots of heated frustration; Mason shouts and threatens like the bully Teddy is; and Manfre is appropriately befuddled as Nancy.

As for the Alzheimer’s angle, critical discretion prevents me from discussing it in detail. While the illness allows for the kind of humor familiar from similar plays about its effects on memory and behavior, it in no way moves the needle on its dramaturgic treatment. There undoubtedly will be more plays with characters suffering from one form of dementia or the other, and the pain and confusion such disabilities bring to their loved ones. However, after the slew of previous works attempting to confront the problem, one waits for something truly new to say about it.

Trick or Treat provides both theatrical tricks and treats but the tricks are old hat and the treats are like those from Walmart.


59E59 Theaters/Theater A
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through February 24