Many writers, wrestling with the inner demons left over from their upbringing, are able to turn unpleasant scar tissue into an exquisite piece of writing. Playwright Jim McCartin grew up in Brooklyn, where the inspiration for his new play Stella's Sanctuary Bar was born. But is there really anything left to say about Brooklyn in the '50s that hasn't already been covered by The Honeymooners and On the Waterfront?
In Stella's Sanctuary Bar, McCartin has recreated an over-familiar world where there is nothing new or startling to shake up any preconceived notions about time and place. Ostensibly about corruption on the Brooklyn waterfront and how it affects the lives of all the people associated with it, there are more plots than a cemetery, more colorful characters than an ethnic wedding, and more exposition than the third girl from the left on Minsky's runway. Characters exist solely as devices to move plots along, and are defined principally by their cliched diversity: the Italians are either lazy dreamers or goombah mobsters, the Irish are clannish hard-drinking social climbers, the Poles are blowsy boozers, and the Scandinavians are pedantic peacemakers.
At times laboriously studied, at times frenetic and hysterical, Benno Hennael's production was as inconsistent as McCartin's script. It was never clearly established which of the many plots was the central line, and every character in the large ensemble was given equal weight. As a result, there wasn't a single rising line of tension or excitement, and the play's climactic scene became a howling whirl of noise, every line shrieked at full volume and completely unintelligible.
With nothing but expository dialogue to play, only one performer survived with his dignity intact: Brian Beck in the central role of Tim Degnan, the one who went to college and moved to "the city" (New York City, that is). Beck, making his theatre debut with this role, possessed a commanding voice and presence, and an innate intelligence that enabled him to rise above the material and deliver a first-class performance. He should go far.
The set captured the flavor of a dingy waterfront bar, as did the flat, almost fluorescent lighting. The costumes, if not authentic '50s style, were convincing enough to pass for the real thing. (All uncredited.)
With far too many characters and plots, it was difficult to distinguish just what McCartin was trying to say. An intense workout with a good dramaturg might help to narrow down the focus to its most basic element, but then again, it might just be time to close the bar and start from scratch.
(Also featuring Tricia Donohue, Christopher Kerson,
Susan Kostalow, David Mandelbaum, Etienne Navarre,
Steven Nielsen, Ante Novakovic, Michael Schoffel,
Jim Quinn, Ray Trail.)
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Copyright 2000 Doug DeVita