By Samuel L. Leiter
Despite its title, Scott Aiello’s Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon is anything but a slacker/stoner play in the vein of the Bill and Ted or Harold and Kumar films. It’s actually a conventional, occasionally heartwarming, but sometimes unconvincing, kitchen-sink dramedy about the Vincolos, a familiar Italian-American, working-class family. Bernie (Stephanie Gould, “Orange Is the New Black”), a.k.a. Bernadette, and Mikey (Forrest Malloy), a.k.a. Michael Vincolo, Jr., are the Vincolo children, both in their early 20s.
Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon concerns the anxieties experienced by the Vincolos because Bernie, a childhood victim of encephalitis, is intellectually disabled. Her trip to the moon with the protective Mikey is a metaphor for getting far away from the troubles that embrace them.
Bernie, for all her childishness, lapses, and tics, including a passion for Elvis Presley (whose songs link the scene transitions), is relatively high functioning. But she can be difficult to handle. Mikey, more than anyone else, shows the greatest compassion and patience in dealing with her issues. We see this early on when, good-naturedly suppressing his frustration, he deals with a mentally challenged boy named Jeff Goldblum (Benjamin Rosloff)—his name is a running joke—who keeps calling and leaving messages for Bernie. At its core, the play is about sibling love.
Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon, now getting its world premiere by the Strangemen Theatre Company at 59E59 Theaters, takes place in a Chicago suburb in the late 1990s. Despite scenic shortcuts, James Ortiz’s unavoidably cramped set serves as the Vincolos’ home—kitchen/dining area on a raised level, Bernie’s small sandbox below—and a bar called the Scorpion Lounge.
The Scorp, as it’s dubbed, is owned by Bernie and Mikey’s dad, Mike, Sr. (Jordan Lage), who works there with the crusty, aging, Polish-American, Charles Bodanski, nicknamed “Ski” (Stephen D’Ambrose, Small World: A Fantasia). Mike, Sr., is a swaggering, foul-mouthed guy, with a roving eye. Much as he loves Bernie, he has trouble accepting his daughter’s condition (he says she talks like “a Mexican Elmer Fudd”).
His long hours away from home leave his long-suffering wife, Gladys (Margo Singaliese), who even fixes the kitchen sink, to handle most of Bernie’s caretaking. Her only escape is to go shopping at the Jewel supermarket. Gladys also figures in one of the more unlikely situations, when, ignoring the family’s financial needs, she resists having Bernie tested for eligibility to receive government benefits. It’s one of several playwriting ploys to create conflict where none would ordinarily exist.
Mikey’s restaurant job involves getting covered in grease that makes him stink, although nothing in his appearance looks out of the ordinary. The same is true of Laura (Ismenia Mendes, Troilus and Cressida), his coworker. Mikey’s enamored of her but she’s entrenched in a relationship with an abusive boyfriend. The smartest of the Vincolos, Mikey’s interested in philosophy—at one point he’s reading Hume’s An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Selections from A Treatise on Human Nature—but, for some reason, never went to college.
In two acts requiring two hours, with a 10-minute intermission, Bernie and Mikey is not quite sure of how to focus its scattered moonbeams, among which is the melancholic one of the chubby Mikey’s unrequited longing for the cute Laura, which even leads to physical conflict with her boyfriend. Another reminds us of the plethora of plays (most recently The Waverly Gallery) about people with cognitive or physical disabilities whose conditions create emotional and ethical dilemmas for their families when decisions must be made about their future welfare.
Act Two is preoccupied with something else entirely, the family’s frantic behavior when Bernie goes missing. And, finally, in the play’s best and funniest scene, which almost justifies earlier clichés and implausibilities, we have an hilarious encounter with Jeff that explains Bernie’s disappearance and allows Mike to interrogate him on just what he means when he says he “made her my girlfriend.”
Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon is well acted, although director Claire Karpen could pick up the pace a bit. Gould’s Bernie, with her childlike speech and actions, is lovable; Lage gets Mike’s macho attitude and flat Chicago vowels right; Singaliese is believably harried as the Italian-American mom you’ve seen so often; Mendes finds the sympathetic heart in Laura; D’Ambrose captures Ski’s benign curtness; Malloy stands out as the loving Mikey; and Rosloff, himself autistic, virtually steals the show as the lovestruck, bicycle-helmeted boy who snares Bernie’s affections.
Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon is no Moonstruck but it may shed just enough moonglow to light up your heart.
Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon. Through December 2 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues).Two hours, one intermission. www.59E59.org
Photos: Michael Kushner