by Montserrat Mendez · May 3, 2014
Playwrights on New Plays #71: Montserrat Mendez comments on Broad Channel at Cabrini Repertory Theater
Smitty walks in from the kitchen with a bottle of vodka, puts it on the table in front of her husband, a recovering alcoholic, then pours a glass and tells him she preferred him when he was a drunk. What follows is a carefully modulated scene and one of the finest pieces of theatre I’ve seen in Off-Off Broadway Theater, more than enough to prove that Theater’s best is often happening in out of the way places.
That one scene elevated the play into something operatic, worthy of winning plaudits, Tonys and Pulitzers, everything we associate with success.
James Bosley’s gem of a play Broad Channel is almost there. So I would like to consider this production, playing at the Cabrini Repertory on 190th Street it’s out of town try out. Hopefully the playwright will watch it carefully and continue to work on it. Because its first act is absolutely solid, incredibly shaped, and layered. A real pleasure to witness.
That it falters in the second act is not all that disappointing. Mr. Bosley is a highly intelligent writer, and has set up the first act so well that even with flaws, the second act is well worth the journey.
But let me go back to the beginning and tell you about this extra-ordinary family I met. Somewhere in Broad Channel, not far from JFK Airport lives a struggling family, Smitty, the bitter, volcanic crossing guard, Richie, an alcoholic struggling with finding the integrity that has eluded him all his life and Ralphie, the kid so damaged he has decided to act-out or act as if he were dead on the inside, whichever manipulates his parents best. Also part of the family is a painting which has been with the family since Grandpa George brought it home from WWII.
Richie is trying to make up for a lifetime of mistakes, so even though his son has not really put time into getting good grades, Richie wants to send him to college. Which he cannot afford. Unless he sells the painting, online. He uploads it to eBay and soon technology forces him to face the fact that the painting that saved his Grandfather’s life (he looked at it from a hospital bed in Antwerp) was stolen from a victim of the Holocaust.
The first act sets this up very well. It is as if the playwright started to reveal layers of disappointments from our three family members. That they are still struggling and hoping is thanks to that painting. Which has now gained a nearly mythic status in the household. Slowly we learn to care, then the playwright begins to show us some small cracks, which makes them absolutely relatable. But then some of those small cracks begin to grow into seismic, unbridgeable gaps, which the playwright handled deftly and with great skill.
However, the beginning of the second act betrayed some of that set up. And it took a few scenes to regain its composure and deliver to us one hell of an ending, an ending that would force Richie to reconsider every choice he’s made in his life.
Because ultimately this is Richie’s play, it is about a man who is waking up for the first time in his life from the haze of alcoholism. He realizes that he may not be where he wants to be, and he may have married the wrong girl, and that the painting his family finds a blessing has cursed them all for generations because of the way it was obtained. A.A. steeps its process in the act of detachment. Detaching from that painting is an act that has finality for Richie, and will continue to have consequences way after the play is over.
Now, let me heap some well-deserved praise on director Kathy Gail MacGowan, who directed the play with intensity and precision. She really had a good handle on the through line of the play, from the beginning, where the painting distracted our eyes because it hung slightly askew on the wall, to that ghostly faded look of husband and wife at the end of the play. A look that reminded me of the girl in the painting. She handled the play like a master.
The cast is terrific and strong all the way across the board with Matt Higgins as Richie giving a beautiful, specific and grounded performance. This is more than acting this was craftsmanship. As his wife Smitty, Laura Fois had an even more difficult role, she had to nail the complexity of a character that we began liking but slowly rethought as we found her to hold some pretty despicable views. How can someone who is a good mother, who wants a better life, have those views? It is a gutsy, revealing performance, and she relishes it. As the son, Ralphie, Andrew Albighese, did best in the most dramatic scenes, but he was still a bit self-conscious at times; but the young man has talent to spare and these rough edges will smooth as the run progresses. Elisa Middleton is heartbreaking as the woman searching to rebuild her family’s Jewish past, brick by brick, and I have to say the chemistry she had with Mr. Higgins made me believe that this was the relationship he deserved all along. And the hilarious Rik Walter does some incredible character work with the roles of Snyder and Bouguereau.
The technical aspects are all superiorly handled. This is a company and a group of artists that deserve to be working for a long time to come.
And at the end, even though I questioned some second act choices I left the theatre immediately and had a three hour conversation with my theatre date about it. What choices would I make? Does one have to pay for the sins of another? Who does art ultimately belong to? Can someone claim the artistic expression of another so clearly as to put a price to it and lock it away for the world to miss? Is a war hero allowed to be a bad guy? The sin of racism or anti-Semitism is often so deeply seated that the person who is guilty of it often doesn’t even see it? If that is the case, is that person at fault, or are we at fault for culturally allowing it to get hold? Do we take responsibility for creating the Donald Sterling’s of the world? This play forces you to ask some really tough questions. And the playwright feeds us no answers. We are left to decide for ourselves. That he respects his audience so much that he doesn’t preach to them is to be commended. And that is the kind of theatre I want to continue to see, that is the kind of theatre I want artists to keep making.