Deus ex omnibus

Encounters in Passaic

By Michael Bruck
Directed by Micah Soames
The Sage Theatre
Raw Space
529 W. 42nd St. (929-3423)
Non-union production (open-ended run; call for times)
Review by David Mackler

Encounters in Passaic is a fairy tale of a play. All the threads of the carefully plotted story come together neatly by the end, but this tidiness is a double-edged sword -- it is the play's chief pleasure but also its biggest drawback.

Set at a bus stop in Passaic, New Jersey where you can get a bus either to New York or further into Jersey, the play revolves around Irene (Vonder Gray), a homeless woman who uses the bench there as her center of operations. Jason Thomas Oates is a young man whose lover has died, and he is contemplating suicide. Irene, experiencing one of her self-proclaimed "lucid moments," tells him some of the sadness of her life, but when she lapses into vagueness, the audience is clearly being teased with clues that will likely be resolved by the end of the play. (In fact, whenever any of the characters tell something about themselves, it is fairly certain to hook up with something another character has said, or will say. To Bruck's credit, while the clues are obvious, the connections they eventually make are not.) It's a good thing the buses only run every 30 minutes, so there's lots of time to talk. But when the bus does come, Oates doesn't get on -- instead he offers to take Irene out to dinner, and as they go off together, he puts his jacket over her. By this point, any pretensions to reality go out the window -- it is thoroughly unbelievable, but like most fairy tales, undeniably sweet. Homeless can be very hard to play, but Vonder does well even within the character-ex-machina of the part.

Next at the bus stop is Adalaide (Julie Zimmermann), a honky-tonk Southern kind of woman -- short skirt, cowboy boots, big hair, suitcases, badly in need of a smoke. Zimmermann was terrific, tender and brash, raw and resigned -- searching her bags for a cigarette she revealed nuances of Adalaide's character. Her encounter is with Jonathan Schaefer, a Jersey local who divides his time between the family bakery and auditioning in the city. Again, the bus schedule allows them to share stories of their lives, particularly how Adalaide happens to be in Passaic at all. The clues come fast and furious here, including leaving a sweet roll for the homeless woman who's been watching them from across the street. This time, the bus doesn't go away empty.

The final vignette concerns Irene again, wearing the coat she got earlier from the boy, but now it's tattered and dirty. (Given the signpost nature of the clues, this subtle way of indicating passage of time was very welcome.) An old man (Mort Forrest) shares the bench, and Irene remembers him from years ago. Forrest was quite effective, giving a natural, relaxed performance. At this point all the characters' connections to each other are revealed, the loose ends in all their stories are neatly tied. There is a strong feeling of satisfaction about this, for even a bittersweet ending to a fairy tale is a happy ending.

The setting was simple, but the costumes were right on the mark for all (both uncredited). The direction (by Micah Soames) was effective, but seemed limited by the play's mechanics. And the most direct evidence that these encounters were a fairy tale was that although the characters are initially put off by the crazy, dirty, homeless woman, no one recoils from what would, in any other circumstances, be her overpowering smell. Only in fairy tales kids, only in fairy tales.

Box Score:

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

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Copyright 1999 David Mackler