New Theatre's Seventh Annual NeWorks Festival

Seven plays by Boston Area Writers
Artistic Director Rick Des Roches
At the New Theatre
Boston (617) 247-7388 (closed)

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The New Theatre's Seventh Annual NeWorks Festival this year featured works in progress by Boston area playwrights that explored the characters and issues of their own particular neighborhoods. The scripts were workshopped, and then staged over three weekends. (Jan 12-28) The New Theatre intends to do full Main Stage productions of the most successful scripts next season, as it is doing this season for Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro's "Pablo and Cleopatra" and Tom Grimes' "Mattie's Grille" from last year's NeWorks. The New Theatre has committed itself to two of the most difficult and important tasks an art institution can take on: developing original scripts and promoting multicultural cooperation. Judging from the Festival audience and its reception of the plays, the theatre is going about these tasks the right way.

Three of the five plays on the (very long) one-act bill were written by authors who are better known as poets. Tom Grimes' "Don't Take No Wooden Nickels" could be characterized as "haunting"-- one of its two characters is the ghost of a young man cut down by street violence, and the other the young man's absentee father. The father says that he is devastated by the son's death. He wept when he heard the news of the shooting on television, wept all the way through the funeral -- and he hadn't cried since his own father left when he was a toddler. How could his son join a gang? His son's mother is a good woman: "you wasn't raised like that." The son retorts: "You have no idea how I was raised. You wasn't there." The son blames his father for the gang becoming more important than his own family to him -- but he has come back from the grave to offer his father a kind of second chance. Poet Grimes' dialogue is rich with wit and irony, and offers plenty of emotional meat for actors Michael Nurse and Ricardo Engerman. Sidne Anderson directed.

Barbara Blatner's "Tuesday" focuses on Somerville, where a widowed immigrant grandfather, Joseph, struggles to cultivate his car-port garden and grape arbor without the support and assistance of his family. He alone persists in the age-old effort to observe the cycle of Nature and "praise the sun". His daughter, Judy, has reacted to a mid-life divorce by latching on to an American-style goal, and launching herself into Somerville politics. His granddaughter, Claudia, is just across the town line in Cambridge: but Harvard is a whole other world. Instead of picking up the phone to bridge the distance between the blue collar and the upper crust, Claudia sinks into a postmodern funk in her dorm, swigging whiskey from a bottle and reading aloud from the letter she's trying to compose to send to Gramps, explaining why she's going to funk out. Fresh language, apt symbolism, -- and deft direction by Dev Lutha of detailed performances by Wendy Sutton, Vickie Mishoulam, and Alan O'Hare -- keep "Tuesday" absorbing, but the alienation and inconsequence that threatens these lives shapes the form of the play, too-- deeply frustrating to anyone hooked on old-fashioned conflicts and relationships.

Even though there only one person on stage, there's plenty of conflict in Tina D'Elia's "Forgotten angel/Angel Olvidado" , a "performance poetry slam taking on the realities of being a woman in Boston." D'Elia, who has the kind of vivid beauty that carries to the back row of a theatre or a political rally, takes on the persona of a female judge presiding reluctantly at a rape acquittal, and of various victims. The author is Volunteer Coordinator at the Boston Area Rape Crisis center, and her slam-poetry has been "showcased in the 1995 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual OutWrite Conference", so presumably she speaks with some authority. And D'Elia's piece was a crowd-pleaser, greeted with cheers and shouts of approval. But in spite of the occasional sparkle of lines like "tears on the earth's sawdust crust", to me the piece seemed patched together from slogans and clich├ęs. Perhaps it loses something in translation.

Another play that seems lost in translation is Joffre Faria Silva's "The Last Wash". Silva is a recent immigrant from Brazil, where he has been an actor, director and playwright. "The Last Wash" is his first attempt to write a play in English, commissioned through the Massachusetts English Plus Coalition. It purports to tell about two seventy year old Irish Catholic widows from Brookline (June Lewin, Mary Driscoll), inseparable since childhood, who get together ritually at the Laundromat to wash their dead husband's clothes every Valentine's Day. Colorful Brookline characters, most notably a teen punk (Bronwyn Sims), a henpecked husband (Jerry Kaplan) and his horrible nag of a wife (Wendy Sutton), dash in and out, and the ladies try to intervene to improve their neighbors' lives and loves. Some long-lost evidence turns up that a local femme fatale may have seduced the "perfect" husbands once upon a time, but all is resolved sentimentally in time for a "happily ever after" Valentine's Night.

As a portrait of how Americans see and relate to each other, "The Last Wash" is totally unconvincing. One can imagine the actors and the director (Curt Miller) patiently explaining to the bewildered author that this or that would never be said or done in Brookline, and the author obligingly altering his script. But there are enough howlers left, beginning with the notion that two families solidly middle-class enough to own houses in Brookline would trundle to the Laundromat for forty-five years rather than buy their own washer and dryer, to cause the play to lurch from improbability to impossibility and back again. Still, some of the most impossible material is the most interesting, and the over-the-top performance style the implausibilities inspired earned plenty of laughs. One wonders what the play would be like if Silva had gone all the way over the edge past implausibility into absurdity, showing us in its distorted mirror what monsters we must seem to eyes conditioned by the expectations of a different culture.

Bill Lattanzi's "New Englandish", on the other hand, is both perfectly plausible and utterly surprising, and its delights begin with the "ish" of the title. Latanzi subtitles it "a little play about Boston, baseball, paper airplanes, and ramen" . It is also about racism, Lesbianism, homelessness, madness, the claims of love and friendship, the American legal system, and the workings of late capitalism -- but all in a slant and modest way, so that its insights seem to be the audience's own discoveries. Director Don Milstein and an excellent cast -- John Rahal Sarrouf, Mary Lynn Strand, Kerrie Kitto, and Mike Thurston -- seem to realize what a prize they've been handed, and they manage to connect the dots of its multitudes of tiny scenelets and skate over its hidden profundities with style and grace. Bravo!

There were two full-length plays in the festival, Frank Shefton's "Looking for an Echo" and Renita Martin's "The Brunch". Martin's script seems to be in the early stages, but it is warm and vibrant and full of the peculiarities of real life. Martin shares a theme with Tom Grimes -- a young man from the Roxbury ghetto cut down by gang violence, whose ghost is on stage during the drama-- but in Martin's script, the ghost (R.A.) is a silent presence, and the focus is on how three generations of African-Americans have used their music --blues, jazz, and rap-- to heal and make whole lives threatened and battered and lost.

Martin, a nationally acclaimed poet, is also the director of a social service agency in Roxbury. In a playwrights panel on the final Sunday of the Festival, the author explained how she had planned to make the evolution of black music the main structure of the play-- her first attempt in dramatic form. She interviewed generations of musicians from the Roxbury neighborhood to get the history right. But then her characters ran away with her: especially Uncle Shorty, the salty old blues man. All Martin's characters are well drawn, with three-dimensional unpredictability, and director Cassandra Cato-Lewis' splendid cast -- Jeff Garlin, Michelle Dowd, William Butler, and Cedric Crow -- made the most of them. But Uncle Shorty, and John Ertha's performance of him, was in a class by himself. Cooking inedible gourmet feasts, extolling reefer --"a good friend to me"--and reveling in blues music and bawdy stories, Uncle Shorty is a magnificent character; a Falstaff stealing the audience's heart and the play in which he is a minor character. I want to see more of actor Ertha. And I can't wait to see the author's revision of this play -- next time with a better title!

Speaking of titles, I didn't catch Frank Shefton's "Looking for an Echo" in its New Theatre incarnation the first week of the Festival, but I've seen earlier workshops of it, back when it was called "The Igniter's Reunion" The play is a generous and hopeful portrait of a ghetto "gang" The Igniters, whose object is not arson but close harmony. The group had one hit record, but it never led to fame and fortune. These middle-aged men who used to sing together back of a dumpster at the housing project have done pretty well-- they range from a public school music teacher to a bus driver -- but they still long for the pop career they missed, and when a second chance seems to come along, they are tempted. If this sounds like a movie you've seen, be assured: Shefton's script was written first.