by Elizabeth Ahlfors
As part of the United Solo Theatre Festival, Tandy Cronyn returned her solo show, The Tall Boy, to Theatre Row for one performance.
In 2014, it was judged for “Best Adaptation” and now the play encored for the United Solo Theatre Festival’s tenth anniversary season. With humor, heart and tears packed into 70 minutes, the story delivers a moving snapshot of a resolute refugee worker assigned to deal with three hapless youngsters left in the wreckage of war.
Written by Simon Bent, The Tall Boy is based on a short story by British writer, Kay Boyle, The Lost. Set in post-World War II Germany, it is indelibly performed by Tandy Cronyn, daughter of stage and screen actors Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. Under the able direction of David Hammond, Cronyn plays all parts, evoking the feelings of frustration, exhaustion, and determination of a woman who runs a Displaced Person’s camp in American occupied Germany and the fierce yearnings of three adolescent boys who wound up there. They had been caught up in the war and cared and influenced by American soldiers and their stories of life back home. The soldiers are now returning to the States and the boys expect to be sent to America as well, certain they will easily slip into that society and enjoy the good life.
The eldest is a 16-year-old Czech boy who calls himself “Johnny Madden” after Charlie Madden, the American GI who had impressed him. Charlie Madden has a garage back home in Tennessee and taught the boy about cars and motors. Charlie had promised to adopted Johnny and the boy was looking forward to joining him and working in his garage. It was more than a dream for Johnny; it was determination. He adapted Charlie’s Southern working stiff speech pattern and dialect.
A 14 year-old boy is Polish and adapted a Brooklyn accent and the youngest, 12-years-old, was from somewhere in Italy, affecting a James Cagney-type tough guy demeanor.
With different ages, accents and personalities, the boys and the refugee worker in charge of their futures, are all played by Tandy Cronyn. She invokes their emotions and tends to their journeys forward, hanging tough through paperwork and endless barriers, physically and vocally fluid, switching from the more mature Johnny to the younger boys with their higher voices. Kathryn Rohe dresses Cronyn in regulation army clothes yet the performer renders each character in a realistic vision through vocal distinctions and variations of personality.
The set change is spare, a cot, neatly made up, a desk littered with papers and a small package of chocolate that Cronyn nibbles from. To the side is a coffee pot and somewhere, doubtlessly is a liquor bottle because Kay Boyle’s character must certainly need a drink now and then just as she lights up a cigarette intermittently.
Her character’s taut narration relates the haunting story from the top, where her transport, the SS Queen Elizabeth, leaves the States for Germany and her refugee group makes their way to the DP camp. On the way, she observes, almost journalistically, the victims of bombed villages, separated families and lost prisoners from concentration camps.
The most heart-wrenching moments come when she learns the refugees will not be going to America. The Italian boy is reunited with his family in Umbria and the Polish boy takes off alone. The case worker must tell Johnny he cannot go to America and cannot be adopted by Charlie, who is black. Cronyn’s explanation to the bewildered boy that America is not a land of opportunity for him is gripping.
United Solo is the world’s largest solo theater festival and this year they will present over 120 international solo shows, including distinguished artists returning by popular demand. The Tall Boy with Tandy Cronyn is an outstanding example of these “Best of” performances.
The Tall Boy was presented on Saturday, September 28 at 2pm. The running time is 72 minutes at Theatre Row, located at 410 West 42nd Street.
In December The Tall Boy will go to Chicago for a limited run (December 5 -15) at Stage 773