Robert Ross, the actor with the title role in Evaluating Woody, read from his script for much of the play and forgot his lines several times when he was off book. He delivered some speeches with his back squarely to the audience, and with few exceptions spoke his lines with virtually no inflection.
This was not the way to create a character so formidable and inspiring that the entire play consists of other people reverently recalling his influence. In Evaluating Woody, the elderly man's nine godchildren gather in his apartment, sharing stories about him and griping about their lives. In the course of their conversation, the following headline-grabbers are mentioned: Enron, September 11, Columbine, Clinton/Lewinsky, OJ Simpson, the JFK assassination, the Bush-Gore election, police-brutality victims Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo, murderous mom Andrea Yates, Wayne Gretzky, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, Oprah, Selena, and Plato.
All these things allegedly have some relevance to the characters' mindsets and the life lessons they learned from Woody. But the dialogue is such a hodgepodge of name-dropping, grandiloquent generalizations and incoherent analogies that it's difficult to glean just what defined Woody's personality and philosophies. Collecting cookie jars and taking long walks are the extent of his eccentricities. His precious advice includes telling a 19-year-old at odds with his mother: "Growing apart isn't a bad idea." When Woody's goddaughter admits she identifies with child-killer Medea (even though her husband's a marvelous partner), Woody responds: "I'm not going to talk you out of it!"
A mass of contradictions emerges in character development and dialog. Woody's a nonconformist who encourages the younger generation to fight inequity (he marched with Martin Luther King), but when godson Frankie is fired after putting in 12-hour days for five years, Woody defends the corporation and berates Frankie for his outspokenness. Someone makes the statement "Americans have no sense of doom"-which is bizarre enough for a play set in post-9/11 NYC but is soon followed by another character explaining that 75 percent of the U.S. population is fat because "we're in a state of despair"...which is promptly attributed to the OJ trial.
After two hours of pessimistic aphorisms and confounding references to the news, Woody concludes: "They shine with my light." What light? Andrea-the woman who contemplated killing her kids "because the world's unfit to live in"-proclaims of her convoluted plan to end 9/11-related hostilities (which involves the pope being naked in Afghanistan): "I have faith in what a deed like that can do."
Despite such inanity, the cast (except Ross) performed with the earnestness of actors in a meaningful drama. Their enthusiasm never flagged, and they conveyed affection for Woody and each other. Their work suggested they'd be worthy of well-developed scripts and roles. But in Evaluating Woody, the talents of Jimmy Aquino, Scott Mitchell Kelly, Joyce Storey, Jim Budig, Michael Soriano, Philip Chaffin, Stephen Innocenzi, Henry Lopez and Shawn Threadgill, as well as those of the production team, were wasted in a play that discusses everything but says nothing.
(Costumes, Cheryl Leggi; set, Thom W. Cunningham; lighting, Rebecca M.K. Makus; sound, Stennett Cyril.)
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Copyright 2002 Adrienne Onofri