Lion in the Streets

By Judith Thompson
Directed by Abby Epstein
29th Street Repertory Theater (465-0575)
212 W. 29th St. (Closes March 17)
Equity showcase
Review by Adrienne Onofri

This may go down as the biggest disappointment of the Off-Off-Broadway season. Lion in the Streets won five Jefferson Awards (Chicago's Tonys) when it played in Chicago in 1993. It was produced in New York by the 29th Street Repertory Theater, whose last full-length production, Killer Joe, was hugely successful and is due to open Off-Broadway this spring. To direct Lion in the Streets, the 29th Street Rep. imported Abby Epstein, the Chicago director who at 26 is already working with Steppenwolf, runs her own acclaimed troupe, Roadworks Productions, and has been named one of the "most powerful twentysomethings in America."

All this hype goes for naught, however. It is described as "a collage-like portrait of an urban neighborhood in crisis as seen through the eyes of a murdered young girl"-- which makes it sound interesting and timely. But there is not a single interesting character among the 30 who occupy the stage over the course of the evening, and the vignettes of urban life are mean-spirited and often distasteful. Marvelous acting by the entire cast was wasted on the material.

Six of the actors had multiple roles, and they offered vivid characterizations with each one. Lisa Pierotti was chilling as a foul-mouthed cerebral-palsy victim, and Elizabeth Elkins, Charles Willey, Tim Corcoran, Paula Ewin and Leo Farley were just as impressive in more mundane portrayals. Alexandria Sage was the only actor to play just one role -- the murdered girl, Isobel -- and she winningly captured the urchin's immature, unrefined qualities.

Isobel's constant presence wears thin, however, as scenes plod along that have no connection to the dead child. The intended symbolism of Isobel's ghost failed because the various storylines are so disjointed. There was no sense of a neighborhood in crisis, only people in crisis, and the situations they found themselves in were uncomfortable to observe.

Scenes such as one where a man makes his fiancee recount her rape in detail, getting her to admit it was the best sex she ever had, leave an audience squirming in their seats due to their vile nature as well as excessive length.

The unimaginative set was composed of tall, see-through panels that the actors had to reconfigure between scenes -- another aspect of the production that wore out its welcome. Lighting designer Joel Moritz created fine effects, including some in a final scene of the girl's "resurrection" that otherwise was preposterous in its allegory. The first-act "ballet" was also out of place. (Set, Luke Cantarella; Costumes, Dana Bauer; Sound, Kurt Kellenberger.)

Box Score:
Writing 0
Directing 1
Acting 2
Set 0
Costumes 1
Lighting/Sound 2
Copyright 1996 Adrienne Onofri

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