by Loren Noveck · November 14, 2014
Quincy Tyler Berstine, Ismenia Mendes | Joan Marcus
Heidi Schreck's Grand Concourse sneaks up on you: It moves along at a leisurely pace, scene building upon scene in the same location (a soup kitchen in the Bronx), lulling you into thinking you're being told a fairly straightforward, emotionally satisfying story about grace, faith, forgiveness, and the possibility of human redemption. In its middle third, in fact, the play seems to build up to a heartwarming narrative of emotional and spiritual growth, with an untroubled happy ending. But the piece doesn’t end there: instead, it goes on to become something quite a bit darker, more bracing, more complicated, and more refreshingly human. It goes on to acknowledge the limitations of forgiveness and forbearance, and to show, with painful effectiveness, the ways in which ordinary thoughtlessness can grow into terrible damage. Schreck and director Kip Fagan keep the piece from tipping its hand too early; every course change carries a major emotional shift, and the play ends up deeply moving and genuinely surprising.
Shelley, a nun who's working through a certain crisis of faith--she times herself by the microwave in order to force herself to pray--runs the soup kitchen at a Bronx church, aided by Oscar, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who left a half-finished dental degree behind to move to New York. Technically a maintenance worker for the church, Oscar also serves as the soup kitchen's unofficial security guard, sometime translator (according to Shelley, he speaks “Spanish and English and something else”), extra muscle for wrangling heavy pots, and all-round support system for Shelley. It's hard to get volunteers, and even harder to get them to come back after a day spent covered in the “gunk” of the clients’ desperation. So nineteen-year-old Emma--committed, not currently in school, and apparently reliable--seems like a godsend. She recognizes the “contagious” nature of that desperation, but she comes back anyway, and even develops a rapport with Frog, one of the soup kitchen's regular and most intractable patrons.
Still, there is something a little off about Emma from the minute she shows up--her emotional volatility, her instant leap to flirtatiousness (and beyond) with Oscar despite his longstanding girlfriend, her claims of an allergy to chemical cleaners. At times in the early parts of the play, it’s hard to tell whether these hints are scripted or acted; Ismenia Mendes's Emma is a bundle of nervous neediness, all tics and bravado. You can see how she’s hard to be around, but also how hard she’s trying, and the shuttling between sympathy and flickering suspicion is a credit to both Schreck and Mendes. Also, it's easy to understand why Emma’s drawn to both Oscar and Shelley, and how appealing their confidence and their certainties--even their faith--seem to a lonely, isolated teenager. Both Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, world-weary and keenly aware of her own foibles, yet full of calm patience and supportiveness) and Oscar (Bobby Moreno, who as always, brings enormous warmth and generosity of spirit to his character) brim with grounded competence and plainspoken friendliness. They’re welcoming without a drop of false optimism or false enthusiasm, and Emma immediately seeks their approval.
So when she names leukemia as her problem, with just the appropriate amount of caginess and humility, it paints a picture we can understand, and fills in gaps in her story. Still, flickers sometimes indicate the pieces aren't entirely adding up, but for every detail that raises a question, there's another one that seems to answer it: she shows us her chemo port, and admits, reluctantly, that steroids are affecting her moods, as if to offset her overreaction to a cut Shelley can't even see and her sometimes inappropriate questions to Shelley.
As Emma starts to become a fixture at the soup kitchen, even attempting to help Frog find a home and a job, Shelley starts to worry more about her, and reaches out to her mother. Which is when it all starts to fall apart: Emma hasn’t been truthful with any of them, and her lies feel like betrayals of Shelley, who's taken Emma into her world and her heart; of Oscar, whose personal life Emma meddles in; even of Frog, as a representative of the soup kitchen's clientele, who've come to trust her and depend on her. But as they rise above their wounded feelings and mistrust, they show a remarkable generosity: Shelley takes Emma back to work; Oscar sincerely congratulates her on not having cancer. There's a tidy redemption narrative--a permanent job for Emma, even the possibility of a job and a home for Frog (Lee Wilkof is never better than when trying to hold it together and become the productive member of society Emma has inspired him to be).
But the play doesn’t end there--which is what makes it interesting. “Everything feels so out of my control,” Emma says, “and what I want is more important than you.” Of course, Emma’s not in particularly good control of what she wants, either; she acts thoughtlessly and selfishly. She’s not alone in this, of course, but here those actions can, and do, have terrible consequences. And all her promises to someday be a “different kind of person, a better kind of person” don’t necessarily mean much to those she’s hurt. From a story about the power of faith and forgiveness, the play shifts to give us a look at the limitations of both--a shift that I think makes the play itself infinitely stronger and more powerful.