It is inconceivable that Theater for the New City, with 31 years of experience, funding up the wazoo, multiple awards (including a Pulitzer), and an enviably well-endowed performance space, should be able to produce the quality of work it does and still stay in business. It may have been a force once, but something is definitely rotting there now. Ralph Pezzullo's Okeechobee Split, a comic tale of a dysfunctional family (including an ex-Navy man, his Cuban housekeeper, his hero-worshiping son, and his wheelchair-bound brother, all confronting some long-buried family secrets) may have seemed hilarious on paper, but in performance, Pezzullo's frantically scattered and flat-out unfunny farce just doesn't work.
First of all, there are far too many plots to follow; the characters are larger than life caricatures without one shred of humanity; and whatever empathy could be engendered for them or their plight is vitiated by its scattershot approach to plotting, its extreme brevity (1 hour and 15 minutes with intermission), and its spurious "happy ending," which is right out of '70s sitcom. Director Mark Marcante didn't help matters with his unfocused, unsubtle direction that, while fast-paced, left both the script and the actors in the dust as he pursued whatever it was he was pursuing (although his cameo in a video reading of a will was funny, giving the evening its only genuine laugh).
It must be debilitating for any actor performing in a "comedy" to give it his or her all with nary a peep coming from the audience, but to say this cast pushed it for all it was worth is an understatement. Within minutes, a certain desperate air pervaded the entire enterprise, especially from Angela Cruz, whose likable stage presence was marred by a Spanish accent so thick and a delivery so fast that she was rendered unintelligible. Alexander Bartenieff was likewise a pleasant enough fellow, although there was far too much reliance on his scantily clad charms than was absolutely necessary, while Kathryn Chilson, also hampered by a bad accent, and Theo Polites - whether in a wheelchair or in drag - looked excruciatingly embarrassed throughout. Strangely enough, Pezzulo, taking the lead in his play, gave the most successful performance. Marvelously relaxed, he had the advantage of knowing exactly what to do even if he couldn't communicate his ideas through his words, and his performance was remarkably well-defined and engaging - a calm center in the storm raging around him.
Marcante's set was superb, an authentically detailed rendition of a rural Florida home, the uncredited costumes looked like they were pulled from the cast's underwear drawer, and Jon D. Andreakis's lighting was unremarkable.
Late in the second act, the long-buried family secret could be found in the title of Okeechobee Split, for those who cared to look for it. Not bound by professional duty to stay, several other members of the audience preferred to take their cue from the second word of the title and missed the denouement, but, well, not much else.
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Copyright 2001 Doug DeVita