Three Cheers for Cookie’s New Jersey Giraffe

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NY Theater Review By Myra Chanin

 

One might well ask why I, the off-off Broadway Yenta, was schlepping down Suffolk Street on the very lower east side on the morning of Saturday August 9 without a bag of Russ and Daughters nova clutched in my fat little fingers? I was there to perform a mitzvah – that’s the Hebrew word for a good deed, one that’s hopefully less agonizing than the mortifications required for sainthood.

On that morning, the brilliant, talented, yada, yada, yada son of close friends had scored a big role in a Fringe Festival production, I’d bought a ticket and e-mailed his parents that I would meet them at the theater. I liked the lad. He was smart, sweet and adorable and I’d already worked out the logistics. If the play met my usual expectations, I would nap through the first act, Mazel Tov his folks –the Hebrew version of Hi-5 – during intermission and trade in the second act for a thinly sliced pound of Russ’s smoked salmon.

Instead I was stunned and delighted by the almost perfect first act of “Cookie Ireland has a Giraffe,” written, cast and directed by 28-year old Joe DeStefano and performed by nine totally focused, immensely talented, practically all non-equity 20-something New Jerseyites who I expect to see on a list of Tony, Obie, Drama Desk Award nominees someday soon.

“Cookie has a Giraffe” is a quirky, funny and sad Twilight Zone-ish dramedy which opens at the Imaginex Corporation, a company which perversely provides lost souls with nothing to live for with immortality by transforming each into an imaginary friend desired by an isolated child. The downside? Each lost soul is only visible to the child who invented it, to other imaginary friends and to Mervin, the CEO of Imaginex. Conflicts occur when the no-longer quite-so-needy children are ready to discard the imaginary friends who need to continue these connections and turn a blessing into a curse.

Playwright/Director Joe DeStefano is a terrific writer. The scenes are well thought out and varied with dialog touching and amusing as needed. DeStefano was a theatrical design major who dropped out of Rutgers after he was warned that he designed sets like a director, making DeStefano reevaluate how he wanted to spend his life. To better direct, he took acting classes from William Esper Studio, studied puppetry with Avenue Q’s John Tartaglia and started writing. DeStefano won a Best Student Film Award at the Garden State Film Festival and is currently creating a web series. In his spare time, he co-founded the Igloo Collective with his sister Miranda DeStefano-Meene, a terrific actress, who’s cast as Cookie’s Mom and doubles as the grown-up Cookie as well.

So many facets of this production are remarkable. The script and the performances are gripping. The scenes in second act still need sorting but still maintain your interest. The intriguing set, naturally designed by DeStefano, consists of painted blocks easily arranged as beds, desks, chairs, even a chapel. They were built by 17-year old Ryan McNaught and super-ingeniously painted by 16-year old Erica Franchino, a Joe DeStefano mentee.

Justin Pietropaola, a minimally trained Ed Norton/Ryan Gosling lookalike, was spellbinding and chilling as the domineering Imaginex CEO who gradually loses control of his hirelings. Erin Dilorio portrays the young Cookie flawlessly. As Lana, an unfortunately abused imaginary friend, Ashley Layton depicts a subtle but heartbreaking denial of reality. The versatile Michael Striano broadens his matinee idol looks with his nimble clown’s body, tweaking emotions at his rejection and eliciting howls of laughter at his impression of a giraffe in motion.

Where did DeStefano find these superbly focused, diversely trained performers who look totally rooted in every scene in which they appear? “I’m known to have very talented friends,” DeStefano admits. Many of them are graduates of New Jersey’s Somerville High School. Whoever dreamed that such a small town would be such a font of talent! Somerville High has restored my faith in the theatrical version of the American Dream!

Performances: 8/14 -7pm, 8/17-4:45 pm, 8/21-8:45 pm, 8/23-2:15 pm – New York International Fringe Festival

Teatro SEA at the Clemente

107 Suffolk Street New York   www.fringenyc.org

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