Friday, January 30, 2009

Looking for the Pony


By Andrea Lepcio. Directed by Stephan Golux. Vital Theatre Company at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre. (CLOSED)

This comedy/drama about breast cancer, which Andrea Lepcio has expanded to a full-length from its original form as a 20-minute short, garners its share of champions in thrall to its humor and heart in the face of a grim theme. A clutch of detractors, however, find it undramatic, hollow, "sub-Lifetime." All the critics note the talent of lead actors Dierdre O'Connell and J. Smith-Cameron, though whether they feel the performers perfectly suit or overmatch the material depends on their opinion of the play. We must give special points to Variety's Sam Thielman for getting a very specific quibble off his, er, chest.

The New York Times A
(Anita Gates) When you’re in the audience at a play about breast cancer, you don’t expect to laugh a lot. Or to enjoy the sweet taste of victory...You could criticize Ms. Lepcio’s play because her two major characters are so unfailingly nice — noble, unselfish, cheerful and clean. But maybe they have to be; everything they encounter together is so difficult...Both Ms. Smith-Cameron, perhaps best known for her star turn in “As Bees in Honey Drown,” and Ms. O’Connell give glowing, dignified, heartfelt performances, directed without a trace of sentimentality by Stephan Golux. The lead characters’ moral perfection is offset, sometimes hilariously, by the assortment of men and women played by Ms. Funk and Mr. Sanyal. A
(Martin Denton) Gorgeous, wise, and moving play...Lepcio has taken several years to expand Looking for the Pony into a full-length piece and there is risk associated with an endeavor like that—to take something that's simple and pure at 20 minutes in length and understand how to enlarge and transform it into something that's 90 minutes long and just as simple and pure. She has succeeded. The new play is like the old one, but different too. They both deserve space in the dramatic canon.

CurtainUp A-
(Amy Krivohlavek) Andrea Lepcio's wry, witty, and warm play Looking for the Pony offers keen insights on illness by focusing on the relationship between two sisters, one of whom develops breast cancer. Don't be scared off by the subject matter. Under the keen direction of Stephan Golux, it's the sisters' enduring relationship, not the illness, that forms the heart of the play, and J. Smith-Cameron and Deirdre O'Connell turn in riveting performances that should not be missed...Throwing humor in the face of illness is nothing new, but the synchronicity and precise rhythms of these two actresses make the comedy percolate from a relentlessly truthful place. Lepcio's writing often seems to sing as the actresses finish each other's sentences and embrace the unique cadences of their relationship.

New York Post B+
(Frank Scheck) Moving and funny play about two sisters' deepening bond when one of them is stricken with cancer...While the theme suggests many a Lifetime movie, playwright Andrea Lepcio and director Stephan Golux infuse the proceedings with enough imaginative theatricality and emotional power to transcend the familiarity of the material...Enlivening the proceedings are absurdist touches - as when Lauren's lawyer engages in a literal wrestling match with her insurance company rep to procure a bigger settlement...Smith-Cameron and O'Connell are two of our most reliable stage actresses, and they don't disappoint here with their deeply moving portrayals.

Backstage B+
(Karl Levett) The playwright is lucky indeed to have J. Smith-Cameron and Deirdre O'Connell playing the lead characters...Both combine consummate skill with individual charm. So here in Lepcio's tender but grimly stark drama, we get two for the price of one...The women share a strong sisterly bond that's tested as cancer becomes the other principal character. The play's poignancy is in the fact that the bond is not found wanting. For once we witness a family relationship that is truly functional...The story spirals down as anti-dramatic inevitability sets in, and we have only the sisters' devotion left to hold our interest. Unfortunately, terminal illnesses have a way of taking over plays as well as lives...Stephan Golux directs with a firm hand, combining pace and pleasing restraint.

Theatermania C+
(Adam R. Perlman) If you or a loved one has struggled with cancer, then gathering in a room to see it painfully re-enacted in the Vital Theatre's production of Andrea Lepcio's Looking for the Pony, now at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, may be a consoling experience. Others, however, may find the work more effective as therapy than theater. In its favor, Looking for the Pony has more vitality than the average soggy entry in the genre...The interplay of the work's disparate elements--direct address, tearful realism, and comic relief--is neither comfortably conceived in Lepcio's writing nor realized in Stephan Golux's ill-paced direction. Over time, the strained attempts at quirky theatricality are abandoned, and the play becomes more and more about the slog to the grave. In the process, Looking for the Pony wastes the talents of Smith-Cameron and O'Connell.

Variety C
(Sam Thielman) It's not easy to criticize a play about cancer, but sometimes it's necessary: Andrea Lepcio's tenderhearted, emptyheaded four-hander offers little besides schmaltzy platitudes and unpleasant caricatures of everyone who is not our hero (a writer, of course) or her sister, who is dying of breast cancer. But (and it's a large "but," thankfully) J. Smith-Cameron and Deirdre O'Connell are so wonderful in the lead roles that the piece remains watchable, even occasionally moving...Someone should probably sit down with helmer Stephan Golux and costumer Matthew Hemesath and gently explain to them what a mastectomy is--O'Connell spends the entire play, pre- and post-op, wearing a low-cut blouse, and faces stage right when she and her sister are examining her missing breast (which is clearly still there).

Time Out NY D
(Adam Feldman) It is not a good sign, in a play about a dying woman, when the audience starts rooting for the breast cancer. This occurs by the halfway mark of Looking for the Pony. A much shorter version of Andrea Lepcio’s excruciating drama was staged in 2002 as part of Vital Theatre Company’s Vital Signs series, and the playwright has now expanded it into a one-act. But the piece hasn’t been fleshed out; it has merely been padded up. It’s a 20-minute play in a fat suit...Smith-Cameron and O’Connell are very fine actors, and it is embarrassing to watch them deliver dialogue that ranges from the banal to the bathetic...Despite occasional halfhearted stabs at absurdist exaggeration, this is basically a manipulative sub-Lifetime weeper.

NYT A 13; A 13; CurtainUp A- 12; NY Post B+ 11; Backstage B+ 11; Theatermania C+ 8; Variety C 7; Time Out NY D 4; 79/8=9.88 (B)

1 comment:

Karen Young said...

Someone should probably sit down with Sam Thielman at Variety and explain gently to him what theater is. In addition, someone should probably sit down with Rob and Isaac and "gently explain" that highlighting Mr. Thielman's commentary with irony is insulting to women who have had mastectomies.

In this play, the actors don't sit in real wheelchairs. They don't eat real baked goods. They use a steel kitchen island as a bed, and a desk, and guess what? When they act out a Mastectomy, they don't actually cut off a breast. If Mr. Thielman has a problem with his own intelligence, or lack of imagination, or even a dislike of non-realistic theater, he should say so honestly and directly -- that is valid criticism. To patronize and condescend to the production team for lack of research or understanding when they clearly took a deliberate choice is inappropriate for any critic, and certainly anyone writing for Variety.