The Commons attempts to explore the ways in which everyday moments can form a wider story. The comedic drama is written by Lily Akerman and directed by Emma Miller backed by an almost exclusively female creative team. For a piece that sprung from the mind of a young playwright known for telling stories filled with colorful and distinctive voices and further filtered through a sharply feminine lens, it is surprisingly lacking in warmth or depth.
The script is composed of quick scenes depicting a series of conversations held in the kitchen shared by four New York City housemates. Fastidious Robyn (Ben Newman) is a failed artists who has lived in the house for 20 years. Jittery Dee (Julia Greer) is struggling to focus her thoughts about her all-important dissertation. Homey Janira (Olivia Khoshatefeh) lovingly bakes bread while Marie Kondo-ing the heck out of the space. And newcomer Cliff (Ben Katz) is stretching his meager web designer paycheck while filling the air with empty promises. The topics they cover are everyday issues from who should wipe down the stove top to how long a guest should be able to stay. Atypically, these discussions do not build on one another. Each time an incident appears to be lifting the action to the next level, it deflates as quickly as Cliff’s vow to clean his beard hair from the sink. In total, the characters live together for 9 months — the period it takes to create a new human life — yet they have almost no impact on each other, an outcome that is as tedious as it is unrealistic.
Ms. Miller’s staging in the black box Theater C at 59E59 is also ill-conceived. In order to accommodate Emmie Finckel’s clean kitchen set, the performance area has the audience seated in an L-shape. But the actors are mostly placed so that those on the shorter side are continually confronted by backs instead of faces. The sharp cuts between episodes often make the passage of time difficult to gauge. At least the clever sound designed by Caroline Eng fills the pauses with the “music” of kettles, microwaves, timers, and other kitchen noises.
The cast members — most of whom have worked exclusively in festival and workshop productions — do what they can to bring variety to their roles. The most successful is Olivia Abiassi, whose energetic arrival halfway through the play woke up the audience, in some cases literally. Her portrayal of Cliff’s ex Anna, the most full blooded of the characters, is thoroughly engaging For the short time she is in the shared apartment, the spunky straight shooter fills the void by providing everything the others have been lacking in their lives, be it a fresh salad or genuine honesty. Unfortunately, none of her vitality survives her character’s exit.
A still-emerging work, The Commons might be better appreciated in a less established venue. For a modern day kitchen sink drama, this production suffers from a lack of seasoning. Though the situations portrayed may be increasingly… common, that does not automatically imbue them with meaning. To build a real bridge between the viewers and the subjects requires more than an exploration of surface traits and eccentricities.
Presented by The Hearth, The Commons is running at 59E59 (59th street between Madison and Park) through Sunday, February 23. Tickets are $25 ($20 for members) and are available by calling the 59E59 Box Office at 646- 892-7999 or by visiting http://www.59e59.org. Seating is general admission. Note that the second row on the shorter side of the L is not raked.
Halfway Bitches Go Straight To Heaven
No one creates moments that are simultaneously unsettling and humorous quite like Stephen Adly Guirgis. Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is his first play since being awarded the Pulitzer in 2015 for Between Riverside and Crazy. This new work is a snapshot of the struggling residents of a New York City halfway house, surrounded by an unwelcoming neighborhood and staffed by those whose lifestyles aren’t much healthier. It’s a sprawling script with over a dozen main characters to track. Many of the transactional relationships include elements of genuine affection and the ride is a profound one. Ultimately, though, it is not so much a tapestry as a sewing kit with each thread slightly touching the one beside it.
As the play opens, a group session is in progress. This initial conversation hits many predictable beats — drug use, sexual exploitation, and abuse — but also provides a quick introduction to the characters with whom we’ll spend the next three hours. We learn Queen Sugar (Benja Kay Thomas) has gotten caught up in an Amway-style pyramid scheme while Munchies (Pernell Walker) is preoccupied with Nigerian caregiver Mr. Mobo (Neil Tyrone Pritchard). There are glimpses of Wanda Wheels’ (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) elegance, the stranglehold that mentally ill mother Sonia (Wilemina Olivia Garcia) has over her bright daughter Tiana (Viviana Valeria), and the familiar relationship pattern fragile Bella (Andrea Syglowski) is recreating with lesbian in command Sarge (Liza Colón-Zayas). Always quick to say, “no,no,no” is Rockaway Rosie (Elizabeth Canavan). Taking center stage at the top is the clever rapper Little Melba Diaz (Kara Young). In the corner is morbidly obese Betty (Kristina Poe) whose surprise connection and subsequent blossoming is a highlight. And on the edge (and on edge) is the transgendered Venus Ramirez (a glorious Esteban Andres Cruz) a ferocious voice for those who insist on their rightful place. That list doesn’t include the rest of the staff compassionately portrayed by Victor Almazar, David Anzuelo, Sean Carajal, Molly Collier and Elizabeth Rodriguez.
Elizabeth Canavan ( Rockaway Rosie ), Liza Colón – Zayas ( Sarge ), Kara Young ( Lil Melba Diaz ) and Pernell Walker ( Munchies ). Photo Credit/ Monique Carboni.
As with other Guirgis plays, a subtle but clear picture of the outside world is also drawn. The city’s system is failing and the shortages of both supplies and care are making these lives unnecessarily challenging. A flock of goats tending the grass in a park uptown receives more devotion and support than any of the humans who are simply looking for a chance.
To hold all these tales, a skeleton of the tenement house dominates the set. The sparsely decorated central room of Narelle Sissons’ design also represents the office of the dedicated and overworked manager and occasionally the bedroom of an occupant. The area between the first row and the stage serves as the surrounding alleyways. Director John Ortiz places much of the action on the house front steps audience left and a bench audience right making the viewing experience a bit like a tennis match. Additional focus is achieved with lighting design by Mary Louise Geiger while the mood rises and falls with sound and compositions by Elisheba Ittoop.
Haunting and moving, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is like taking in a gallery filled with the faces of those whom New Yorkers breeze past every day. Though their full stories are not on the display, the images will sear into you. Note that the material is strictly adult, containing nudity and simulated sex and drug use. The limited engagement co-produced by LAByrinth Theater Company has already been extended through Sunday, January 5. Regular tickets begin at $70 and are available online at atlantictheater.org, by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111, or in person at the Linda Gross Theater box office (336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues).