THE BASICS: FALL FROM THE GRACE OF GOD, a showcase of one-act plays by local writers Jennifer Tromble, Mark C. LLoyd, TJ Snodgrass, Monish Bhattacharyya, Tim Joyce, Justin Karcher, Karen McDonald, Matthew LaChiusa, John F Kennedy, and James A. Marzo, runs through April 2. Thursdays-Fridays 7:30, Saturdays at 5:00. Presented by American Repertory Theatre, at the Compass Performing Arts Center (the old TheatreLoft) 545 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, NY, 14222. artofwny.org 716-697-0837 Runtime: 2 hours 45 minutes with one intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Accompanied at times by an on-stage band, the ten plays, or skits, or sketches, or poems-acted-out were all based on or inspired by the lyrics of the Celtic/Punk band The Pogues. While there are no clear connecting plot threads, the plays do flow from one to another without pause. The same 14 actors all appear as regulars at a South Buffalo local gin mill, “Martin’s Bar & Grille,” before they take on different stage personas. All the actors and plots have a disaffected view of the world. There is some music by The Pogues, but not as much as you’d think, and it’s used primarily as incidental music.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: The Pogues were an Anglo-Irish “Celtic punk band” founded, according to Wikipedia, in London as “Pogue Mahone” – the anglicisation of the Irish Gaelic póg mo thóin, meaning “kiss my arse”. True or not, that sounds right. They were popular in the 1980s and 90s, then broke up, then reunited in the early 2000s but mostly to reprise their former songs. Common themes in Celtic punk music include politics, culture and identity, heritage, religion, drinking and working-class pride. This fits perfectly with Buffalo (“a drinking town with a football problem”), especially in South Buffalo culture and the Irish “Old First Ward.” But that culture also describes the North Towns, where lumber and chemicals, not steel, held the jobs for decades and where I was once told (I cannot verify this) that Ontario Street had more bars per mile than anywhere else on earth. Again, true or not, that sounds about right, and so these plays should appeal to everyone from wherever you hail.
The lineup of local playwrights and works started with John F Kennedy’s ME BROTHER, directed by Catherine Burkhart and featuring Susan King, as the playwright paid homage to an older sibling. At intermission playwright Kennedy told me about that brother of his who fueled ships during the Vietnam War and succumbed, as so many of his fellows did, to cancer from being splashed with benzene.
As he told me that story, I thought of the Herbert Hoover quote: “Older men declare war. But it is youth that must fight and die.” (Didn’t think that old H.H. had a punk sensibility, did you?)
FAIRYTALE IN NY by Karen McDonald, directed by Matthew LaChiusa, centers around an aging singer having to choose between one more shot at Broadway glory or settling down to sing acoustic songs in Buffalo bars. Alyssa Grace Adams plays the curious younger person as Susan King explains her motivations, all while watched over by the bar owner, Michael Breen.
Mark C Lloyd’s IN A DARK AND DIRTY BAR, also directed by LaChiusa, features Sarah Emmerling and Trevor Dugan in what we come to realize is a bit of sexual foreplay. Cute idea, but it went on waaaay too long and was one reason that the evening clocked in at close to three hours.
James A Marzo’s A RAINY NIGHT IN SOHO, also directed by LaChiusa, finds runaway bride Kayla Victoria Reumann needing to act out her story using the furniture and the willing patrons of the bar to become her Uber driver, a possible one night fling, and her jerk of a fiancée. The set-up is a bit of a stretch, but once it gets going, it’s pretty funny, and of all the shorts, is one of the most “organic” of the evening, with the bar setting suddenly making perfect sense.
Jennifer Tromble’s FALL, directed by and co-starring Stefanie Warnick has her as a sort of perky smooth-as-silk recruiter for male street walkers and hustlers, in this case going after the local drunk, “Jimmy,” played by Matt Mogensen. It was inspired by The Pogues’ song “The Old Main Drag” which ends with a sorry young man lamenting: “And now I’m lying here I’ve had too much booze / I’ve been shat on and spat on and raped and abused / I know that I am dying and I wish I could beg / For some money to take me from the old main drag.”
And before intermission, to lighten up the mood a bit, TJ Snodgrass’s MAGIC HANDS, also directed by Stefanie Warnick, has Isabel Deschamps play a modern “damsel-in-distress” (asking for subway directions) while her partner-in-crime Cameron Kogut picks pockets of the distracted “knights-in-shining armor.” It has a nice Title IX finish and makes great use of the stage, directed as it was by Certified Stage Fight Director Warnick.
After intermission, Trevor Dugan delivered what was described as “the beat-poetry didactic” of WHEN THE ANGELS WON’T RECEIVE ME by Justin Karcher. That didn’t work for me, but your results may vary. I was reminded of the character Maureen in RENT with her avant-garde performance piece “Over the Moon” (based on “Hey Diddle Diddle.”) I know people like that. I don’t.
On the other hand, the tour-de-force (for me at least) was another poem titled LOVE IN A TIME OF CHANGE by comedian Timothy Joyce, involving the entire ensemble, each person taking a phrase, all superbly directed by Catherine Burkhart (who also directed ME BROTHER). Ms. Burkhart was quoted in a recent interview answering a question about problems directing a new show and she replied: “Staging difficulties. Clashing personalities between actors. Sometimes that can be incredibly difficult. And I don’t think an audience realizes all the time spent in rehearsing, even a short piece.” Well, I realized it especially because it’s a big ensemble piece where Joyce’s long poem, shared sequentially by many voices, is about growing up in South Buffalo.
Then, we are off to the bar regulars’ farewell to their butter factory worker friend named “Petey” in Matthew LaChiusa’s “PETEY’S GOODBYE.” It seems that Petey, though dead, doesn’t want to leave this mortal coil, reminding me of what parents used to tell kids who had overstayed their welcome “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” Bar owner Martin, played by Michael Breen, insists that Petey move on. But first, it turns out, he has to be baptized. Pretty funny.
And that is contrasted with Monish Bhattacharyya’s clever game of life or death in LAST GAMBIT (lead image), directed by Steve Vaughan and co-starring Larry Gregory Smith as an ex-con who plays chess with The Devil or “Old Scratch” as he is called. Smith, as it happens, has a trick up his sleeve.
And that’s it. A little more dancing (maybe too much dancing) to music by The Pogues, curtain calls, and we’re out, at 10:15 pm. I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!