Truth and consequences

The Basement

By Stephanie Dell'Anno Cleary
Directed by Clyde Baldo
Shapeshifter Productions
Pantheon Theatre
303 W. 42nd St. (604-4507)
Non-union production (closes Sept. 29)
Review by David Mackler

It seems to be a fact of family life that a basement, once finished and furnished, will always remain unchanged. The kids grow up, but the same rock and film posters will stay on the walls, and sport trophies and banners remain where they are originally put. This kind of stasis exactly suits the O'Hanlon boys of Stephanie Dell'Anno Cleary's The Basement, who are still treating each other the same way now that they did 15 years ago.

It's not a pretty sight, but the strong acting of Derek Michalak, Michael Patrick McCaffrey, and Jack Cleary made it real and vibrant. Their performances were rich with character detail, both physical and emotional. Michalak, the youngest brother, held his beer bottle with an odd bravado, but was crushed like a little boy when a promised gift of peyote doesn't arrive. McCaffrey was full of bluster and fury that masked his true feelings. Cleary was the prodigal son whose experience in California has given him a changed perspective on an old memory. Clyde Baldo directed with naturalism as the key, so there was lots of overlapping dialogue and repetitions to go with the love/hate camaraderie of brothers.

Unfortunately, all this was in service of a play that felt underdeveloped. The subject of how and why family dynamics conspire to keep a shameful secret is potentially powerful, but The Basement doesn't go anywhere unexpected. The characters have possibilities, from Michalak's dependence on experiencing life through sports and pop culture, or McCaffrey's resentment of the situation circumstances forced him into. Cleary's new insights, though legitimate, are pronouncements that seemed borrowed from a self-help manual. While he has just come back from California, it's difficult to make "I don't want to live inside this lie" and "I'm running to myself" dramatically viable when stated so baldly. Emily Ward was underused as the boys' mother - her second-act monologue about how she was courted by her husband hinted at deeper depths than were plumbed.

The set design (by Jennifer Clemente) was perfectly realized, with the Rocky, Farrah Fawcett, and sports-hero posters anchoring these characters in the past they can't escape. Costumes (Clemente) worked to the actors' advantage, from just the kind of non-fashion work clothes and t-shirts the boys would wear to the scruffy bathrobe that Mom lives in. Lighting (uncredited) was the right kind of low tech that would suffice in a basement. Songs at the beginning and end of each act were fairly obvious choices, from Springsteen's "Growing Up" to Aimee Mann's "Wise Up," so brilliantly used in the film Magnolia.

Hints at a fuller play were there - Michalak, continually disappointed in the Mets' losing, takes refuge in a tape of their winning the World Series, and there are oblique hints about his sexuality; there's McCaffrey's alcoholism and violent tendencies, and exactly why doesn't he want to go to his usual hangout? Cleary's ambivalence about leaving his brothers behind could be further explored, and how about the real reason behind the shameful act they are all struggling so hard to ignore? The play was short, clocking in at under ninety minutes. These characters (and actors) deserve more substance.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Sets: 2
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2001 David Mackler