I Saw My Neighbor On The Train and I Didn't Even Smile, by Suzanne Heathcote. Directed by Jackson Gay. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Creating all this havoc. . .it isn't getting you him any faster."
Andrew Rothenberg and Keira Naughton; photo: Michelle McGrady
The apples don't fall far from the tree. Not in Chicago at any rate, not according to British/American playwright Suzanne Heathcote whose play "I Saw My Neighbor On The Train and I Didn't Even Smile" examines the immense difficulty encountered by three generations of women in one family who cannot seem to engage in a relationship let alone sustain one. Daphne, mother of Rebecca and her brother Jamie, and Jamie's teen-age daughter Sadie are thrown together by the circumstances surrounding Jamie's marriage to a new bride and his ex-wife's need for alone time with a new lover. Sadie is a problem kid: drugs, porn, general meanness. Rebecca is a problem: alone, mourning a deceased dog, unable to meet anyone. Daphne is a problem: a drinker and a smoker, she abandoned her family to live with her lesbian lover. All three women are alone together and it isn't comfortable at all.
The blood in this family is in no way thicker than water. In fact, water is definitely thicker, especially in a Chicago winter. Sadie resents being left with an aunt and grandmother who clearly want nothing to do with her. Rebecca feels overly burdened and under-obliged to fulfill a loving role. Daphne is too cynical to be of much use to anyone, including herself it seems. Sadie, a devout Californian, won't wear a coat. Daphne won't stop puffing on her electronic cigarette. Rebecca won't even say hello to her upstairs neighbor when she sees him in the hallway. These are problem women. And the men in their lives only complicate matters awkwardly.
With all that as the premise, this is hard to say: this is a funny play. It is not merely funny "odd" it is also funny "witty" and funny "laughable" and funny "charming." In fact you laugh in spite of yourself because the play is so well written. Fifteen year old California humor jibes quite well with seventy year old Chicago wit. Both are completely out of step with the middle-aged concepts of Rebecca, yet both old and young find themselves commiserating with the one in the middle in spite of their own inclinations and better judgements.
Pithy Rebecca is played with forthright independence by Keira Naughton who has infused this woman with a reality that is oddly touching and emotionally livid. Her outbursts are packed with ginger and the flavor permeates all of her words. She spews out accusations and hurls the ravings of the mad with equal authority. There are times when she quietly takes on the most difficult of emotional tasks, principally thrown at her by her mother and her brother, and she emerges clean and restored for the moment to sanity. It's a wonderful performance from this actress who has so often been brilliant and equally often been off-putting. Here the script matches her two extremes and draws them together into a cohesive center point where she stands angry, sweet, loving, compliant and completely endearing.
Ariana Venturi plays the fifteen-year-old niece to perfection. More worldly than a girl this age should be, Sadie is a challenge for any actress. Venturi manages to play the inward innocence alongside the world-weary eccentric. This is one of those tight-rope walking roles where a step in the wrong direction could easily spell disaster for the entire play, but she maintains the balance and keeps Sadie centered nicely. It is an achievement of merit to play this part so well.
Andrew Rothenberg is excellent as the desperate and angry brother, Jamie. He exudes tension constantly, no matter the scene, and if he recalls a youthful Marlon Brando it is more the energy than the style that accounts for this. An attractive Nick Adams type, Rothenberg brings a different era into play here which is almost too difficult to make work. However, it is more character than era that keeps Jamie alive for us. He is a universal type, a man who lives on nerves and beer, one who needs his women and can't manage them. The actor handles all of this very well and keeps us intrigued even if we're not really interested.
Adam Langdon plays the high school student and tutor who find Sadie interesting. He plays the role with a sweetness that is a much needed antidote to the rest of the company's tense humanity. Adam O'Byrne adds the fire of passion to the play with his performance as Steve, an on-line dater who makes the mistake of finding Sadie attractive. His is a powerful performance that runs the gamut from bashful to shameless.
Weirdly holding the other elements of the play together is Linda Gehringer as Daphne.Not the central character it becomes clear early on that everyone else in her family is part clone and part drone of Daphne. Her strong personality and her even stronger and more definitive decision making inform her children's and grandchild's life choices. Gehringer is brilliant at chucking out a line and moving on quickly. She can take the banal and make it meaningful and in the next breath make an important statement into a throw-away line. Somehow the need is always fulfilled even when it is flouted. Naughton may have the principal role but Gehringer gives the principal performance.
Paul Whitaker's set design has an almost cinematic flow which works for the script. Jessica Ford's costumes are appropriately wintry. Whitaker understands how to light all of this and he keeps the play interesting to watch.Composer Ryan Kattner has provided pianist Daniel O'Connell with an onstage presence that never intrudes but does add to the texture of the performance.
All of this has been blended, knitted, compacted by director Jackson Gay who seems to understand just what is needed at all times. She has taken an out-of-control situation and given it shape and format and a much needed confinement. This is a world-premiere production of the play and it could not have been placed in more able hands.
You cannot go wrong seeing this play. You may not like the people or enjoy the situation but you will come away with that wonderful understanding that something has taken place that will stay with you for a very long time. That is the best thing theater can offer. And as they say in a different play, "when they offer. . .you take."
Linda Gehringer, Ariana Venturi, Keira Naughton; photo: Michelle McGrady
I Saw My Neighbor On The Train and I Didn't Even Smile play in the Unicorn Theatre at the Berkshire Theatre Festival property in Stockbridge, MA through August 15. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go on line at www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.