Friday, September 11, 2009



By Bekah Brunstetter. Directed by Evan Cabnet. Atlantic Theatre Company. (CLOSED)

A number of critics greet Bekah Brunstetter's new play about a North Carolina military family warmly, heralding its mix of sitcom-ish humor and sincere drama as the sign of a bright new theatrical voice, and praising director Evan Cabnet and his cast for transcending Southern-fried stereotypes. Just as many critics, though, think the mix doesn't take, even if there's no consensus on which part doesn't belong--the zany antics of two sisters or the earnest struggles of servicemen to adjust to civilian life. Filing after the first wave of reviews, cranky John Simon doesn't disappoint with his review, turning his withering gaze on Brunstetter's stage directions.

New York Post A
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) We've endured a fairly large number of plays and movies about the plight of Iraq veterans and their families, most of them lousy: too much tortured corn, too much heavy-handed docu-drama. In the middle of that muddle, Bekah Brunstetter's intimate "Oohrah!" is a happy surprise...Considering its Southern setting, "Oohrah!" could have been a hee-haw mess, but the 27-year-old playwright never looks down on her characters...Brunstetter's writing is quick, economical and often very funny. But she also lucked out with director Evan Cabnet, who has a sensitive touch, and a uniformly ace cast.

Backstage A
(David Sheward) Skillfully depicts how the demands of military service affect an individual family and society as a whole. Brunstetter's people are real and funny. She never condescends to them or treats them as symbols to put a point across...Director Evan Cabnet and the cast deliver a solid production that balances wildly absurd comedy with genuinely moving moments...A big hurrah for "Oohrah!"

On Off Broadway A
(Matt Windman) An unflinching look at a marine's awkward return home to his North Carolina family following an extended stay in Iraq...Brunstetter sincerely and successfully explores the helplessness and depression one could feel upon entering a new social environment. She ends her play not with a firm resolution, but rather lots of unsolved conflicts. It's a pretty gutsy move that really pays off.

Theater Scene A
(Simon Saltzman) Although Brunstetter has three brothers who are or were in the Marines, the inspiration behind Oohrah! only sets the stage for a very fine domestic comedy with complex, emotionally conflicted characters, all of whom are incisively etched...Less driven by plot than by its comically poignant characters, Oohrah! delivers a pleasurable and satisfying look at people relegated by social strata, as well as by patriotic fervor, to a life style that is almost site-specific.

Time Out NY A-
(Helen Shaw) In her delightful (but loaded) comedy Oohrah!, Bekah Brunstetter manages to treat the hardware with the perfect nonchalance (little girls at shooting ranges, friendly gun-assembling competitions), while stockpiling the really explosive stuff—everyday yearning...Clearly the house—meticulously realized by designer Lee Savage—is a powder keg, and director Evan Cabnet evinces palpable glee in lighting Brunstetter’s various fuses. Every cast member, from grumpy grandpa Pop Pop (J.R. Horne) to Sara’s weedy fiancĂ© (unstoppable comic grenade Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), does splendid work, and the evening flies past. On reflection, some of Brunstetter’s jokes (elegantly written, uproariously delivered) smell a bit of condescension, and her ambling overall construction makes the final note a damp squib. But Brunstetter and company have been hitting one comic bulls-eye after the other. You should go just to marvel at their marksmanship.

CurtainUp B+
(Paulanne Simmons) Intelligent and moving...With Evan Cabnet's sensitive and compelling direction, and Lee Savage's meticulously realistic set, Oohrah! can seem like a true slice-of-life. The situations and dialogue are often reminiscent of a T.V. sit-com. But the comedy and drama in the play hit home in a way that's seldom achieved in lesser work.

Financial Times B
(Brendan Lemon) To Brunstetter's credit, none of these characters are treated with the rote left-wing condescension one might expect in an off-Broadway premiere whose story involves Iraq. She has written a drama in which the morality of America's invasion does not figure; if this gives the evening the sometimes deflating aura of a sitcom with Serious Themes rather than something resonant, the work at least cannot be faulted for not achieving its sometimes too obvious aims...If the drama's surrounding social context is the cost of war on families, its details make up a tragicomedy of frustration. No matter how much she tries to shed her trademark wackiness for more realistic drama, the prolific Brunstetter cannot resist having at least one character whose stifled desires are edged in zaniness.

Canadian Press B
(Michael Kuchwara) A promising if plot-heavy comedy-drama of family discord...The playwright's dialogue is often bright and funny, particularly when the two sisters, portrayed by Jennifer Mudge and Cassie Beck, ratchet up their antagonism toward one another. Occasionally, you can see Brunstetter underlining the play's big themes, such as the dislocation - both psychological and physical - of military men...Director Evan Cabnet has given "Oohrah!" a remarkably fluid production, with the play's short scenes neatly separated by a country music soundtrack. He's helped by Lee Savage's economical set design that stacks a bedroom on top of the kitchen, where most of the anxiety-filled action is played. B
(David Gordon) A fascinating, original take on something we've come to see rather often nowadays: the war play...Brunstetter tries to straddle two styles, the domestic comedy and the family drama, with mixed results. In intertwining the styles and trying to fit in all the characters, the play lacks cohesion and focus. Any point she may be trying to get across is unclear, but Oohrah! succeeds as a slice-of-life piece. The ending isn't much of anything and there's not much resolution. But, just as in life, not everything ends tied up with a ribbon.

The Daily News B-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) While the play by Bekah Brunstetter wants to be an honest look at a timely topic, it's about as deep as your average sitcom. In lieu of fresh insights, there are a few laughs...Director Evan Cabnet guides his fine cast skillfully as the action moves between the family kitchen and an upstairs bedroom, the scene of various clinches...The work has issues, but also shows her sharp ear for capturing everyday speech. I also admire that she doesn't sugarcoat her female characters. The sisters are about as unlikable as they are unsympathetic. It may sound odd, but Oohrah! to that.

Theatermania B-
(Andy Propst) These quirky characters all collide in ways that should, theoretically, amuse and touch, but unfortunately, Brunstetter's unfocused script means that a potentially charming slice of Southern life becomes an often less-than-satisfying theatrical experience...This sense of aimlessness is only exacerbated by director Evan Cabnet's overly speedy and often too broad staging within the awkward and claustrophobic confines of Lee Savage's two-level scenic design...Nevertheless, there are glimmers of poignancy and terrific humor in both the writing and performances, particularly whenever Mudge and Beck share the stage together...With some judicious revisions, OOHRAH! might be something to cheer about.

Talkin' Broadway C+
(Matthew Murray) Well-constructed but ungrounded evening...pretends it’s a mild-mannered glimpse at American ennui but gradually reveals itself as little more than a tightly controlled rant...Brunstetter is at her strongest when she’s focusing on the seeds of separation the seven are sowing - you can imagine most enemy combatants would inflict less pain on Ron than Sara when she suggests he become a manager at Krispy Kreme...But Brunstetter’s skill at plumbing family discord doesn’t translate to larger-scale storytelling. Her second-act attempts to tie everyone’s anger and unease to the country itself seem politically desperate, and transform Oohrah! from a sensible, house-bound study of suburban agitation and into a roiling apologia most of the scenes are too flimsy to support.

Variety C-
(Marilyn Stasio) The young scribe's talent and potential are obvious in this Southern-basted dramatic comedy about the war mystique as it plays out on the American home front; but so, too, is her struggle to manage the tricky theatrical style in which she's chosen to work...Brunstetter's affectionate portrayal of the sisters holds up, even as she heaps on the comic absurdities of their romantic notions about men in uniforms, not to mention their absolute ignorance about the realities of war itself. But once the men take centerstage, asserting their realistic characters and unfunny psychic tics, the women look like idiots for clinging to their fantasies in the face of so much honest-to-god pain...As the play tries to straddle both styles, the comedy loses its amiability and the tragedy never materializes. Brunstetter may think she's writing in some new theatrical form, but what she's really doing is consigning her play to dramatic limbo.

Village Voice C-
(Alexis Soloski) Bekah Brunstetter's new drama Oohrah! offers at least one innovation. Though a rifle is introduced in the second act, no one expires from a gunshot—or even suffers a flesh wound. This should not suggest that Brunstetter plays nice: Her attitude toward her characters too often favors contempt over sympathy...Brunstetter writes funny, lively dialogue (some of Abby's musings verge on the pleasantly absurd), but she has a tendency to censure her character's tastes and choices, like Sara's plastic wine glasses or the White Zinfandel Abby drinks from them. This derisive stance and Evan Cabnet's broad, slapdash direction transform what might have been an intoxicating comedy into something more unhappy and acrid.

The New York Times D+
(Charles Isherwood) The physical and psychic dislocations caused by combat and the trouble that soldiers encounter in reintegrating into their families and finding new purpose in their lives are potentially powerful themes. But Ms. Brunstetter often seems torn between a desire to write an honestly observed play and a need to show off her cheerily warped humor. The result, part kooky-family comedy and part reflective drama, feels off kilter and generally unconvincing...The role of Ron, played with focused simplicity by Mr. Goldstein, is the play’s least comic and its most persuasive, even if Ms. Brunstetter does not always make the character’s emotional transitions clear...The director, Evan Cabnet, cannot be blamed for the lapses in the writing. Still, a more nuanced hand at the helm might have helped smooth over the variations in the play’s tones.

Bloomberg News D
(John Simon) The kind of play that capitalizes on irrational behavior, incoherent utterance, sentence fragments, assorted self-contradictions, a vague ominousness (guns everywhere) and a shaggy-dog ending. Some people may consider it the last word in realism; others, the acme of pretentiousness...It is in the stage directions that Brunstetter really loses it. Of Ron and Sara in bed we read, “Their actions are dirty and awesome.” Of Christopher, an airport security guard, “His uniform eats him.”

New York Post A 13; Backstage A 13; On Off Broadway A 13; Theater Scene A 13; TONY A- 12; CurtainUp B+ 11; Financial Times B 10; Canadian Press B 10; B 10; The Daily News B- 9; Theatermania B- 9; Talkin' Broadway C+ 8; Variety C- 6; VV C- 6; The New York Times D+ 5; Bloomberg D 4; TOTAL: 152/15=10.13 (B)

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