by Ron Cohen · August 17, 2014
Along with all the solo-show memoirs, experimentation and boundary-pushing stuff that turn up at fringe events, it’s also a cause for celebration to come across a sturdy piece of naturalistic playwriting that allows a group of actors the opportunity to bring to life an engrossing yarn. Michael Ross Albert’s The Grass Is Greenest at the Houston Astrodome, at the New York International Fringe Festival, is just such a work. It crackles with smart storytelling and persuasive acting.
Albert starts his narrative on a high point and the proceedings continue to heat up. It’s the final night of a gallery showing of the work of a group of young uncelebrated artists. It’s also the swan song for the gallery itself, which is closing and ending the job of the gallery’s supportive manager, Amy. Furthermore and most traumatically, shortly before the play begins, one of the artists, Caroline, has had a meltdown and in a fit of rage destroyed all the work on display. She has had a session with the police and now has returned to the gallery to face her fellow artists -- Marshall, a painter, and Pablo, a sculptor who also works at the gallery as an intern. We quickly learn that part of Caroline’s anger stems from the fact that while her art has failed to sell, Marshall has sold a piece of art she puts down as his “green thing” -- canvas covered with Astroturf. (You now have a clue to the meaning of the title, but, believe me, you still have a lot more to learn.)
As they further debate the motives for Caroline’s unforgivable actions, we also get insights into their tangled relationships and backgrounds. And when Caroline’s non-artist fiancé, John, appears to shepherd her home, the tension mounts further. There is also a lot of pungent dialogue about the value of art, for both the creator and the viewer, and the artist’s often profitless search for perfection.
The five-person cast is excellent, creating full-blown characters under Brandon Stock’s well-paced direction. Kathleen O’Neal makes Caroline’s anger credible and a little bit frightening as well, while Greg Carere imbues Marshall with unexpected dark depths of feeling. David Gazzo’s loquacious and good-natured Pablo leavens the proceedings with character-driven humor, while Kaitlyn Samuel wins sympathy for the good-natured Amy: not only is she faced with looking for a new job, she’s also in need of some male affection. And when Jimmy Dailey’s John comes into the gallery, he brings another layer of compelling complexity to the atmosphere.
There may be, perhaps, a bit of forced coincidence in Albert’s plotting, but it’s totally forgivable in the interests of twisty storytelling. It was also gratifying to me that the author did not try to tidily resolve the problems of his characters. His play runs a quick 65 minutes, and it seems just right, as it leaves us wondering how things might actually turn out for them.
The Grass Is Greenest is a production of Outside Inside, a New York-based independent theater company started in 2011 by graduates of The Actors Studio Drama School. It speaks well for what’s being taught there.