Thursday, February 12, 2009

Leah's Train


By Karen Hartman. Directed by Jean Randich. National Asian American Theatre Company at TBG Theatre. (CLOSED)

Karen Hartman's play about generations of Russian Jews going to and from America gets its world premiere with an Asian-American cast. Is this more than a cross-cultural gimmick? Most critics think so, even those who found it odd or distracting. But while only some critics loved the play and thought the casting highlighted the tale's universality, all of them praised the lead performances of Jennifer Ikeda as a young second-generation Jewish American doctor and Mia Katigbak as her domineering mother. A+
(Martin Denton) A gorgeous play about coming to terms with family, with the past, with the challenges you never have to master, with the ghosts that sometimes hold you back. Playwright Karen Hartman does a masterful job juxtaposing the world of 1913 with the world of today on this single magical train, illustrating the strengthening and deepening bonds of a mother and daughter who embark on a journey that they never meant to take. And director Jean Randich realizes Hartman's work beautifully, placing the soft, sepia-toned scenes of a century ago side by side with sharper and more vividly colored modern-day ones...I've deliberately kept the details sketchy in this review because Leah's Train is such a brilliantly surprising play, layered and dense and magical like a Russian Kachina doll.

Backstage A
(Ronni Reich) Stories of today and stories of 100 years ago happen concurrently, but through Hartman's artful writing and Jean Randich's equally artful direction, all is clear. Questions of cultural and familial identity are given an intriguing twist when taken on by a cast of Asian-American actors, the drama becoming more universal. While the occasional Yiddish word can feel incongruous, most of the time the powerful characterizations and the cast's committed performances transcend expectations...Ruth (Jennifer Ikeda) is a doctor in her 20s who cares for geriatric patients but has known her own grandmother Leah only in mythic terms -- as a hero. Her mother, Hannah, is a bulldozing Jewish mother full of vulnerabilities who's breaking free of an unhappy marriage and a negative outlook. In this role, Mia especially convincing. She and Ikeda handle Hartman's semilikable characters with finesse.

Theatermania B+
(Dan Balcazo) The casting choice is not played for comic effect; on the contrary, while the actors bring out the humor within the script, it's the more grounded emotional and dramatic moments that have the greatest impact...The script is filled with coincidences and surreal moments, and it's to the credit of director Jean Randich and her cast that the action never seems too unbelievable. The production wisely focuses on the human touches rather than the fantastic, ultimately telling a simple and moving tale about a family and the ways it deals with grief and sacrifice.

The New York Times B+
(Anita Gates) A worthwhile, mostly well-written and well-performed drama about family and the importance of cherishing life and connections. It has comedy, it has meaning and it’s quite touching. But the production demands to be judged, at least partly, in terms of its casting...Over all, the device does make a case for universality in the human experience; it just feels synthetic at times.

American Theatre Web B
(Andy Propst) Underscores how easily the principle of color-blind casting can be applied to new American works. Unfortunately, even as theatergoers savor the noteworthiness of this staging, and some of the vibrant performances in it, it's hard not to wish that "Train" were a more satisfying experience overall...Hartman spins an intriguing, almost "Twilight Zone"-like, story in "Train," but her dense plotting and her heavy layering of themes overwhelm the human drama that's at the core of the play...Theatergoers' disorientation and their resulting frustration with is only enhanced by Jean Randich's sturdy, but lackluster staging, which rarely helps to illuminate murkier aspects of Hartman's script. Nevertheless, and to Randich's credit, Ikeda, Changchien and Katigbak turn in performances enjoyable and well-crafted performances. In particular, Ikeda and Katigbak shine as mother and daughter.

Time Out NY B-
(David Cote) Nontraditional though the casting may be, the actors are solid. The pretty and poised Ikeda does her best with a shrill role that requires much hysterical overreacting. Mia Katigbak seems to have a grand time swanning about as Ruth’s selfish and immature mother, Hannah...Although Hartman deftly juggles timelines and dutifully orchestrates her themes, the action eventually suffers from too much wild happenstance and poignant whimsy. It doesn’t make you want to leap from the train, exactly, but it can make for a long, restless ride.

That Sounds Cool C+
(Aaron Riccio) Nobody wants to see last-resort theater, but that's what Jean Randich's direction feels like: "We didn't connect with this play, but here's our best shot." To everyone's credit, parts of that "best shot" work...The fragmented cuts between scenes and the use of ghostly double-casting...create a world in which cowardly daughters run the risk of forever living in their mother's shadows. In fact, this visual texture even smooths out some of the forced writing, such as in a scene where the four primary "modern" characters all "write" letters (monologues) that are, for some reason, similar...A train is the wrong metaphor for this play, for Leah's Train is slowly paced, cramped in its characterizations, and awkwardly put together.

Village Voice C+
(Alexis Soloski) It's a puzzling, affecting script, which director Jean Randich and the actors never really make sense of. They and the playwright might have worked harder to locate the scenes and delineate the characters before the stories and timescapes collide. Or they could at least have provided a bar car.

CurtainUp C
(Paulanne Simmons) With its impressionistic blending of fantasy and reality, and its conflation of timelines, Leah's Train would be a difficult undertaking for any company. NAATCO and the play's director, Jean Randich, certainly deserve credit for assuming such a challenge. But in this case one suspects they've bitten off a bit more than they can chew. The actors never seem to really connect with the material, either emotionally or ethnically...It's hard to believe most of the actors care about what's happening. And it's almost impossible to think of them as Jewish...Does NAATCO intend on playing black characters, Hispanic characters, native American characters? One can hardly imagine a NAATCO version of August Wilson's Fences or Gershwin's Porgy and Bess...The desire to celebrate the richness of American culture is a fine ideal. But it doesn't always make for good theater. A+ 14; Backstage A 13; Theatermania B+ 11; The New York Times B+ 11; American Theatre Web B 10; TONY B- 9; That Sounds Cool C+ 8; Village Voice C+ 8; CurtainUp C 7; 91/9=10.11 (B)

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