Sunday, April 10, 2016

REVIEW: DOMESTIC DRAMEDY SHINES @ THE BICKFORD THEATRE

By Ruth Ross

The domestic drama has long been a staple of theater—from the gory Greek tragedies through Eugene O'Neill's searing dissection of his dysfunctional family (Long Day's Journey into Night, now being revived at the Roundabout Theatre in New York) to Neil Simon's gentler comedic trilogy about his childhood in Brighton Beach.

Holly SmileNow, with a nod to Simon, Sherri Heller has penned My Mother, My Sister and Me, a gently charming, coming-of-age dramedy of an eventful summer in the life of Holly Sarah Abrams (left, Paris Mercurio), a 14-year-old living with her mother, older sister and maternal grandmother in a small Bronx apartment up near Yankee Stadium.

The summer of 1969 is a seminal one in history: Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and the women's movement was in its incipient stage. Locally, the Bronx was in societal flux, as Jewish residents moved out to the suburbs and "new" people (e.g., Latinos) took their place. Physically, construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway meant the demolition of many apartment buildings (my own grandmother's included), and, culturally, Woodstock would change music forever.

Family Dinner Big SurpriseOnstage, Holly's parents have separated, her mother has received a job promotion with concomitant benefits (L-R: Loni Ackerman, Laura Ekstrand, Paris Merucrio, Stephanie Windland), her older sister Robin is in full-throttle rebellion mode and her father Danny has concocted a hare-brained (and illegal) scheme to make money from an apartment building his late father left him. As the world around her changes, Holly yearns to be considered "grown up," which means getting her period and experiencing her first kiss.

As evident in the title, My Mother, My Sister and Me is a tale of women; the three male characters (other than Danny) are mere props. Laura Ekstrand successfully portrays the mother, Arlene, as a strong woman, fiercely protective of her daughters and having little use for her husband Danny, well played by Gary Littman (left, with Ekstrand) in the thankless role of luftmensch (literally, "air man"), an unambitious man who thinks he can make something of nothing—which, of course, enrages his go-getter wife and has caused their separation. Both actors convey their characters' essential traits very well, although Littman's Bronx accent is more convincing than Ekstrand's, who starts out strong but loses it as the play progresses.

As Heshy Mankowitz, the science teacher/dance instructor who lives with his mother upstairs, Scott McGowan (right, with Ekstrand and Ackerman) personifies the sixties with his loud shirt and sideburns, but he plays the character as a bit too gay, with his vocal tics and effeminate gestures, thus becoming more a caricature than a real character, something quite unusual for this fine actor. Worse, his Bronx accent sounds almost Bostonian. And as Marco Lopez, the "new" boy on the block who has caught Holly's attention, Ethan Berman needs to work on his stage presence a bit; the character's shyness is understandable (after all, he's only 14 years old), but more confidence and better projection would help his performance immensely.

Holly Sylvia Arlene  Robin not at Danny'sThat leaves the other three actors, all of whom are uniformly terrific. Although it was difficult to hear and understand her in the opening scenes, Paris Mercurio's portrayal of Holly grew in passion and conviction as the evening progressed. Her adorable physical appearance is matched by the character's winning personality, as she attempts to remain loyal to her rebellious sister (above, with Ackerman and Ekstrand), placate her mother and grandmother, and navigate the shifting tides of the adult world swirling around her. Every time she addresses the audience (as she does quite often), she wins our hearts. Despite this being her professional debut, Mercurio's stage presence marks her as an actress to watch.

Matching her performance, albeit sometimes a tad too loudly and passionately, is Stephanie Windland as her sister Robin, complete with fake British accent, go-go boots and fringed vest that telegraphs her rebellion. She exhibits great comedic timing and is equally as charming as her sibling (although most parents in the audience may recall their own rebellion or commiserate with Arlene over the difficulty of raising a child on the cusp of adulthood).

Sylvia Robin L ChiameRounding out the cast is Broadway actress Loni Ackerman (right, with Windland) as grandmother Sylvia Fenster, who has moved into the small apartment and helps raise her granddaughters while her daughter works. For her, Arlene and Danny's separation is jarring (divorce is not a word in her vocabulary), and her misguided efforts bring about the defining conflict of the play. She's not the battle-ax of Neil Simon's grandmother; her softer depiction stems from her awareness of Arlene's magnanimous offer of a place to live out her widowhood, but she could have been a bit more forceful in dealing with her granddaughters. Nevertheless, Ackerman gives us a warm-hearted (grand)parent who loves her family (even those who reside in Long Island) very much.

Eric Hafen directs with an eye to keeping the action humming along (the performance clocks in at two hours), eliciting convincing deliveries of Heller's well-written, natural dialogue. He needs to tighten up the Bronx accents and work on getting the opening scenes off to a stronger start. Jim Basewicz's set depicts a city apartment of the period, but Roman Klima's lighting appeared to wax and wane from time to time inappropriately. Fran Harrison has dressed the actors in costumes appropriate to the time (Robin's attire is especially droll).

Sherri Heller's My Mother, My Sister and Me is receiving a first-class production at the Bickford Theatre, a venue not usually known for producing world premiere efforts. Whatever its (minor) faults, I am confident that as the run progresses (it closes April 24), the performances will grown stronger and more confident.

As it stands, My Mother, My Sister and Me is a nostalgic love letter to strong family values, palpable affection and teenage angst. It also reminds us that change is ever present and unavoidable. As the French say, "Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose"—”the more things change, the more they remain the same."

IMAGE: (L-R) Paris Mercurio, Laura Ekstrand, Scott McGowan, Gary Littman, Stephanie Windland. (Center) Loni Ackerman.

Photos by Warren Westura.