Thursday, November 13, 2014

Grand Concourse @ Playwrights Horizons

Generally, I enjoy when a piece of theatre or any other form of media decides to focus on characters and relationships instead of just moving along a plot. I enjoy when it’s just two characters onstage talking to each other and showing an audience just what their relationship is. Sometimes, it works really beautifully and becomes a great, touching study on human relationships. Grand Concourse tries to do this, but doesn’t 100% pull it off.
Grand Concourse, written by Heidi Schreck, tells the story of a Bronx soup kitchen run by a nun, Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), and what happens when Emma (Ismenia Mendes) begins volunteering at the soup kitchen. Also featured are the soup kitchen’s handyman/”security man” Oscar (Bobby Moreno) and frequent visitor of the soup kitchen, Frog (Lee Wilkof). Essentially, the presence of Emma causes twists and turns to appear in the lives of the other characters, for better or worse.
The main relationship of Shelley and Emma is the most interesting, and most grounded relationship that’s examined. Bernstine and Mendes have a natural way of playing off of each other that feels grounded and realistic and really like we’re just watching two people get to know each other and become friends. And when everything falls apart later, we actually feel something for these two characters knowing that their great relationship has been damaged. It’s the odd relationship that happens between Emma and Oscar where things become rocky acting-wise. Moreno is great at playing a cool, likeable and slightly flirty character with a lot of thought and depth.  It’s just when Mendes starts playing with Emma’s attraction to Oscar that her acting starts to feel a lot less grounded and more “schmacty.” Emma is obviously a mentally unstable character in some respects, but her “seduction” of Oscar feels forced and not truthful at all. This made things murky with how the relationship is supposed to be. Is there supposed to be a mutual attraction? It’s unclear, because Moreno and Mendes appear to be playing at different levels, and it makes the relationship ring less true. There’s a way to make crazy appear truthful and honest-Wilkof does an excellent job with the paranoia and instability prevalent in Frog, albeit at a comical level. Mendes’s crazy seems a bit more on the fake side. Whether this is intentional, it’s hard to tell.
Director Kip Fagan does a fine job weaving these characters together and never having the story slow down for too long. There’s a great sense of the balance between hope and struggle that Fagan highlights. Coupled with the witty, natural writing of Heidi Shreck’s script, the characters are well defined. There seems to be an attempt at a message of the nature of forgiveness and betrayal, but it’s not as well defined as it could be. Fagan and Schreck seem to both want to say something important, but that exact thing is lost in execution.  Other design elements worked wonderfully, particularly the scenic design by Rachel Hauck, which makes the non-descript kitchen seem interesting and practically a character in itself.
Grand Concourse will be playing at Playwrights Horizons at 416 W 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues, until November 30, 2014.

Review By: Chrissy Cody
Photos By: Joan Marcus

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