Review by JK Clarke
Whoever decided that it was a good idea to compare neat & tidy (written and directed by Steven Carl McCasland now running in repertory at The Clarion Theatre) to the 1994 Susan Smith murder case (in which a small town North Carolina woman, in an effort to make herself available to a lover, murdered her two infants by driving them into a lake then claimed she’d been carjacked by a black man), did the play an enormous disservice. Since the press info suggests that neat & tidy was “inspired” by the Smith case, it leads one to expect the story to bear it some ressemblance. It doesn’t. Aside from some simple themes (child murder; depressed and disassociated mother; small town life; and a car driven into a lake), it’s an entirely different tale, which is lost in anticipation of the story pitched.
Told in the style of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town or perhaps Moises Kaufman’s, The Laramie Project, in which salt-of-the-earth locals talk about their lives as background to the horrifying rape and murder of a seven year old girl by a local young man, neat & tidy gets to the heart of what such a terrible event does to a community. There is pain in these simple folk (a bus driver, a cocktail waitress, the mayor’s wife, etc.) and we feel it. Though it’s been done before, it’s a very effective device. The schism in this version, however, is that Tracy (a very powerful Kristen Gehling who has hints of Jennifer Aniston in her more serious roles), the victim’s mother, never wanted the child and felt resentment toward the child, which she had to make her cheating husband, Tom (Mark Eric Gomez), love her again. We also get a very interesting look at the pedophile/murderer, Luke (a simultaneously complex and simple Patrick Pribyl) who speaks to the audience just as the rest of the town folk do. But Luke is simultaneously apologetic and unapologetic. What he’s done, he tries to explain, he couldn’t help. And though it was Luke’s own self-interest (to keep her from crying) that led him to kill her, Pribyl almost manages to make him come across as sympathetic.
On the whole, the story is compelling. A study of tragedy in a small town which can’t help but come off as heart-rending. McCasland has created some very real characters, despite a few preposterous beats (such as the working class couple brought together by their mutual love for Proust and David Foster Wallace . . . really?) and some rather specious psychological profiles of both the killer and the mother. The ensemble cast, however, does a great job of conveying the mood of a town in shock, and that’s the most compelling aspect of the story. Horrid events never touch merely the immediate family, they tend to devastate the community. And that’s the real story here, not how it relates to a completely unrelated murder case that happened 20 years ago.
neat & tidy. Through May 29 at The Clarion Theatre (309 East 26th Street, between 2nd and 1st Avenues). www.BeautifulSoup.ShowClix.com
Photos by Samantha Mercado-Tudda