Written by Nick Grosso
Co-directed by Stephanie Barton-Farcus and Aaron Kubey
Nicu’s Spoon Theater (in association with NY Deaf Theater) www.spoontheater.org
The Spoon Theatre, 38 West 38th Street (5th Floor)
Non-union production (October 10–28, Wed –Sun @ 8pm)
Review by Maura O’Brien
As part of its year-long meditation on the concept of disability, Nicu’s Spoon Theater (in association with NY Deaf Theater) has chosen to produce British playwright Nick Grosso’s satire of casual racism, Kosher Harry. Originally performed in the UK, this US premiere of the play retains its British sensibilities and humor, but also features a simultaneous production performed entirely in American Sign Language. The play is about the perils of everyday bigotry, which can seem harmless in isolated jokes, but when piled on thickly (and relentlessly), are so pervasive as to be “disabling.” The connection between this play and the objective of Nicu’s Spoon is at times tenuous, but the message that exclusion and hatred is limiting and senseless is clear (if not totally interesting or if not the stuff of riveting drama). However, in choosing to perform Kosher Harry, it seems like the company tries to force a largely amoral and absurd play to fit its clear social mission.
Set in a kosher deli in the wealthy British suburb of St. John’s Wood, the play features the bigoted dialogue of a group of randomly assembled patrons. From the moment the Man (played by both Andrew Hutcheson, speaking, and Pamela Mitchell, signing) meets the Waitress (Stephanie Barton-Farcus, speaking, Jennifer Giroux, signing), friendly banter develops based on the exclusion of an “Other.” As the vindictive waitress, co-director and co-player Barton-Farcus demonstrates a perky petulance that masks her character’s cruel core. It is an initially innocuous “us versus them” attitude that unites the British patrons (at times) and sparks the hateful, though often disturbingly funny, dialogue.
The Man enters the deli claiming to be a nostalgic former resident of the neighborhood, but subtly acts as a lightening rod for the bitter rants of the other characters. Hutcheson admirably follows the turns of an uneven script, sometimes playing the charmer, other times turning that sweet smile into an evil snicker. His character’s motives for inciting the others are never made clear; perhaps he just likes a good show. Certainly, the resulting conversation is an enjoyable act, with obscene jokes and a bizarre dance scene. In the context of the play, the hateful rants of the characters take on a ridiculous and humorous quality. The jokes keep coming until the players hit upon conversational land mines: revelations of their dark secrets, the discussion of which makes them vulnerable, and therefore angrier. The largest of these explosions come toward the end of the play and render the characters physically damaged (senseless, as it were) in various ways. The exposure of the hideous core of each character is presented as a ‘disabling’ moment.
Adding another layer to Grosso’s commentary on prejudice is the fact that the play is produced by a theater dedicated to promoting inclusiveness and challenging stereotypes. In watching the simultaneous speaking and signed performances, the viewer is forced to reassess stereotypical definitions of disability. The theater’s approach shows that the limiting factor is not physical, but mental. This interpretation is interesting, but over the course of two hours Grosso’s dialogue-driven play proves to be boorish and overdone.
The actors make the most of the script, pouring a great deal of energy and enthusiasm into their portraits. In particular, excellent comic performances by Wynne Anders and Alvaro Sena provide some much needed lift. In the role of the cabbie, Sena consistently draw laughs by spewing casual slurs at a mile-a-minute pace and keeping his face fixed in a comically exaggerated expression of disgust. Playing his unlikely companion in hate, Anders is a wonderfully stubborn Jewish matron, whose unexpected vulgarity underscores the absurdity of the scene.
Furthermore, in spite of last-minute cast changes, the actors perform together quite well. The fact that the simultaneous spoken and signed versions are synchronized so seamlessly is a testament to the excellent timing of all of the co-players. Their good timing also means that few of the jokes fall flat. However, though the dialogue is fast and punchy, the players mostly remain in fixed positions on a sparse stage. The lack of movement mimics the disabilities of these characters, but also highlights just how little happens in this play.
Also, the co-directors Stephanie Barton-Farcus and Aaron Kubey have made the decision to have the two sides of the stage occasionally interact. This cross-communication further pushes the play’s absurd treatment of time and space, but comes at inexplicable moments, and complicates an already muddy play. It is not clear whether these two performances are meant to be shared experiences or simultaneous renditions of the same message.
On both sides of the stage the vicious prejudice grows more intense as the show progresses, but the climax hardly presents a clear resolution. The play opens with the biased remarks of the Waitress and the Man, who from the start seem to be bad people who are not leading what we might call ‘able’ lives. If it were not associated with the thematic goals of Nicu’s Spoon, Kosher Harry would have seemed like a more bitter and hopeless assessment of society. Based on the strange final scene, it is hard not to wonder if that type of unqualified brutal portrayal more appropriately suits this play.
Copyright 2007 by Maura O’Brien
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