by JK Clarke
Perhaps the most poignant moment in Bedlam Theatre’s latest production, New York Animals—a new play by Steven Sater (Spring Awakening) with songs by the legendary Burt Bacharach and Steven Sater, now in its world premiere at the New Ohio Theatre—is when Mr. Earl (Ramsey Faragallah), a mild, middle-aged businessman is told by his brash, quintessential New York diner waitress, Sylvie (Blanca Camacho) that the restaurant is out of baked chicken, a dish he has eaten every day for the past 13 years. Mr. Earl appears devastated, so shaken from his comfort zone that he seems as if he might quiver right into a puddle on the floor. Sylvie is flummoxed, incapable of connecting to Mr. Earl or bridging the emotional gap between them, despite having served him all those years. “We’ve got whitefish like you’ve never seen,” she practically hollers at him, hoping, unsuccessfully, to spur him to an alternative and avoid any further discomfort. It’s a simple scene, but one that speaks to every New Yorker who is part of a community that doesn’t quite connect; and it perfectly captures countless moments and personalities of New York City.
New York Animals isn’t so much a play, but a quasi-linear pastiche of scenes, ostensibly set in the mid-1990s. What’s significant about the timeframe is that it represents (in hindsight anyway) the moment when New York as we knew it was dying out: a period when the city was still raw and integrated; when the crime rate was high, but with corresponding energy and excitement; prior to the dominance of the Internet and the ubiquity of smartphones; before gentrification and the homogenization of commerce; and before 9/11. It’s a New York with character, it’s a New York that’s difficult. We see a slick garment industry businessman, finagling his suppliers, promising a check that will never come; a hot-tempered Park Avenue doyenne screaming about her missing arugula; a clinically depressed 20-something from the Upper East Side who can’t communicate with her recently widowed father and can barely leave the house. These aren’t the stars of the city that never sleeps that we’re so used to seeing on stage. They are the day-to-day people who fill in the cracks around those stars, the people who truly gave New York its fundamentally unique character. New York Animals celebrates this complex array of the sad, the lonely, the desperate, the frustrated and, occasionally, the successful or contented. And it’s all punctuated with songs performed by a soulful jazz/cabaret band led by Debra Barsha on piano (and vocals) and the remarkable singing of Jo Lampert whose clear, resonant and penetrating voice is perfectly matched both to Bacharach’s unmistakable style (and sounding like Sade on the fin de siècle “A Lot of You Left in My Day”) and the pathos of pre-millenial New York City and the angst of these characters. Barsha and Lampert, along with their band, could perform these songs without the interspersed theater and it would be a magical night. But it’s the combination of Sater’s story and the performance of his and Bacharach’s songs that paint a wistful and sadly nostalgic tableaux of an era that one might not have considered, until this telling, to be in the irretrievable past.
This is Bedlam’s first major foray into musical theater. Known for their stripped down, yet remarkably well-performed and insightful, full-length productions of Shakespeare (including last spring’s seminal productions of Twelfth Night in repertory with an alternate version of itself) with casts of as few as four, Bedlam has used its actors’ strengths in playing multiple, disparate characters to create a panoply of New York archetypes, from the gum-snapping, leopard-print clad, big-haired Brooklyn girl; to the lost-her-marbles work associate who goes from amicable to outraged in the blink of an eye; to the conspiracy-theory-spouting, paranoid cab driver. There probably couldn’t be a better company than Bedlam—featuring the dynamic and often intense Susannah Millonzi and the effortlessly amusing and easy going Edmund Lewis—nor a better director than Eric Tucker (who also plays multiple roles) with his expertise in creating a multitude of locales on a small and intimate set, to tell Sater’s story. The set (John McDermott) feels like a small jazz club in the Village, with oriental rugs and a grand piano front and center, on and around which the action takes place. The soft, cozy light (Les Dickert) of a dozen or so colored-glass lamps hanging from the ceiling further the laid back, jazz club mood. Only the wake-up call of the contradictory lyrics of melodious and romantic ballads like “New York, I Love You,” tell us that this scene is about “When the radiator’s weepin’/From the pulmonary season,/ And the super’s just too creepy and rude,” and that we’re witnessing elements of what was once the real New York. Not the shiny bright lights of the big city.
New York Animals. Through December 20 at the New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher Street between Washington and Greenwich Streets, Greenwich Village). www.theatrebedlam.org
Photos by T Charles Erickson Photography