Swimming in rough waters

Ordinary People

By Nancy Gilsenan from the book by Judith Guest
Directed by JoEllen Notte
Nicu’s Spoon
The Pelican Theatre
750 Eighth Ave. 6th fl. (212/868-4444; www.smarttix.com)
Equity showcase (closes Oct. 24)
Review by Seth Bisen-Hersh

Ordinary People is a play based on a novel that was made into an Oscar-winning movie. It is a story about what happens to seemingly ordinary people when faced with a tragedy. The production was realistic, rich, and well acted, while being a tad too serious, slow-paced and lengthy.

The plot follows Conrad (Karam K. Puri) and those around him as he deals with his brother’s accidental death. The death has torn apart his family; the audience finds out that Conrad has recently returned to home and school after spending eight months in a hospital after attempting suicide. His father, Calvin (Jim Williams), is overprotective and worrisome, while his mother, Beth (Barbara Kidd Calvano), is frigid and stoic in her quest for perfection.

At school, Conrad has to decide whether to stay on the swim team, where his deceased brother, Buck, won a lot of trophies (which are still on the mantle). His coach, Mr. Salan (Perry Cornelius), is well-intentioned but a nuisance, as are two jocks, Stillman (Nicholas C. Heppe) and Lazenby (Justin Schaefers), who used to be best friends with Buck and Conrad.

Three other characters help Conrad move past his hurt and pain. He begins seeing a therapist, the unorthodox Dr. Berger (Bart Mallard), who makes him figure out what his real problems are. Also, he has the support of a girl he was friendly with in the hospital, Karen (Jess Leventhal). Finally, throughout the play he courts and starts to date Jeannine (Jovinna Chan), who has her own family problems -- her parents are in the process of divorce.

Thus, the plot is dense and intense. The dialog is realistic and poignant, but could use some sugarcoating and levity to deal with the hard-to-digest subject matter. The ending, however, is sweetly done, and the overall themes are clearly drawn and executed thoroughly.

The cast was grounded and honest. Their realistic portrayals worked well with the serious nature of the play. The accomplished cast included some standouts: Puri maneuvered through the complexities of emotions of Conrad with fervor and aplomb; Mallard provided some much-needed comic relief as the wacky psychiatrist; Calvano was most impressive as the tortured mother -- she never missed an emotional beat and was in character completely; and in just a few scenes Leventhal gave a rounded depiction of a troubled young woman.

JoEllen Notte’s direction kept the show as realistic as possible. The pacing was a little on the slow side, but the energy was never lacking. Lex Liang’s set craftily created four playing areas, separated by movable curtains to facilitate seamless scene changes. Natalie Robin’s lighting captured these areas nicely, and cleverly included a fluorescent light to illuminate a school’s locker room. The costumes provided by the production company were fashionable and functional.

Box Score:

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

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Copyright 2004 Seth Bisen-Hersh