Land of the little people

Under the Green Ceiling

By Timothy Nolan
Directed by Randy Soare
Present Tense Productions
Synchronicity Space
55 Mercer St. (343-1181)
Equity showcase (closes Nov. 23)
Review by John Chatterton

The title refers to the state, like living under the glass ceiling, in which Irish-Americans found themselves at an earlier time (the play is set in 1957), although the text makes no further direct allusions to such a barrier to self-advancement

This is a play, instead, about a son's growing up into failure, a failure that stems more from in-born cussedness than ethnicity. In a short scene at the beginning that proves to be a precursor to the end of the play, the young man's father announces, "Then my son is a man." (The twisting of scenes out of their natural time sequence, and other non-naturalistic devices, is a technique of which Nolan makes skillful but sparing use; it enlivens what at root is a conventional, medium-stakes family drama.)

Will Devlin (Peter Heffernan) comes home, having been kicked out of the Navy for hitting an officer. Having none of the benefits that would come with an honorable discharge, he has few prospects beyond hanging around the house and depending on the Brooklyn form of welfare, i.e. an underworld or political connection (it's hard to tell them apart), to get him a job on the night shift at the local casket company -- a job that he soon blows the same way he destroyed his chances in the Navy, by getting in a fight.

He briefly entertains visions of Romance with the girl next door, Pam Mitchell (Marie Trusits), who dreams that they can go away to far-off Manhattan, where they will further his education and her job prospects. All comes to naught when he forgets their dinner date because he has taken the night job; she shows up at the casket plant and precipitates the brawl that ends his chance for a future in his old neighborhood.

Perhaps if Nolan shoehorned some sense of dramatic necessity into this tale, or draped it in a tragic sense of ethnic and familial determinism, it would resonate more. As it is, the relationship with the girl -- who comes to find Will instead of just being pissed off at his standing her up! -- seems stuck on and not very credible. (So does the device of having the police looking for him, so he has to go into hiding. Why would the police look for someone who has been dishonorably discharged, since he isn't a deserter or AWOL?) This kid is a likable enough character whose chief flaw is that he is a loser, hardly a dramatic rock on which to build a sturdy tale.

The production offered many pleasures to offset its dramatic deficiencies, not the least of them a keen sense of place and time, down to the obsession with the Dodgers' threatened departure and the debate over whether football will ever catch on as a professional sport. Solid performances were offered all round (although Mary Ann Volvonas was simply too young for the role of a soon-to-be-40ish, working-class mother). In particular, Ray Yeates as the father radiated an inscrutable, banked-down rage mixed with a grudging love, traits that could have served as a driving force in his relationship with his son.

The unit set (production design, Deborah R. Rosen), which encompassed the Devlin kitchen, Will's bedroom, Quimby's bar (including an upstairs lounge), Connie's soda shop, and the casket plant, was oustandingly economical. The lighting design (David Alan Comstock) sometimes heaved up and down too violently when cross-fading from one area to another, but otherwise proved more than serviceable.

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

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Copyright 1997 John Chatterton