by Monica Charline Brown
Leonard David Goodisman’s new work, My Backyard, is quite the wacky evening of entertainment. Addressing the environmental issues afflicting contemporary society, the play serves as a witty, admonitory parable, set in an anonymous American town. A part of the Venus/Adonis Theater Festival at the Hudson Guild Theater, and directed by JC Sullivan, the production lives up to its advertisement that “neighborhood discussions can be funny.” With over fifty entries in the winter festival, My Backyard seems to have prime positioning in the height of the lineup.
The familiar buzz of outdoor nights reverberate throughout the ninety six seats in the house. The beginning of the play strikes strange because a woman, later revealed as Joanie, enters the stage to get situated while the lights are still up and the audience is not settled. The blackout follows, and the performance opens. Typically, an announcement would be made, a blackout would occur, and the actors would walk on stage in the blackout before starting the show. [Editor’s Note: We have subsequently learned this was not an intended feature, but rather the result of unanticipated technical problems.]
In actuality, the issue is small potatoes. Once the lights illuminate the stage, Joanie, sassily portrayed by Desi Waters, meanders around her home, talking through headphones connected to her cell phone. She overhears rustling outside only to find her ex-friend and the town’s cat whisperer, Bev, sneaking around her backyard. They argue about trespassing, setting up the prominent theme of who has the right to do what when it comes to property. Bev (Mikael Short) is just the first in a strand of hooligans to grace Joanie’s backyard. The conversation veers to themes of nature, the protection of animals, and how it all relates to development and progress. Dana (the comedic Brandon Thane Wilson) steps onto the scene speaking with a Russian accent. Thinking by now there cannot be a weirder mix of people, Robert White–played by the silly yet suave Cammerron Baits–bounds into the backyard joining the clan. Between Bev desperately trying to find Shishkabob, Joanie’s house cat; Dana (also known as D.E.A.N.) operating a secret agent mission; and Robert drunkenly romancing Joanie, the extemporaneous party is in full swing. Suddenly, a teen girl (smartly acted by Madelyn Wiley) stumbles upon the motley crew. Ostensibly a druggie, she digs the group ambiance, but warns of the environmental safety and health hazards of hydraulic fracking. Frenetic energy and suspicion rises. Out of nowhere, Dana fires a gun toward the fire hydrant and bushes thinking that someone is spying. The problem becomes that no one knows where or what the gunshot struck. At first they assume Shishkabob—the cat—has been brutally murdered. Animal rights discussions lead to harsh critiques of gun control. Subsequently believing the shot killed Joanie, she becomes a ghost still capable of talking and hitting the others. The victim transfers from Bev to Dana to Robert, but meanwhile, everyone fails to notice the teen girl complaining of a pain in her side. The sacrifice of the next generation is ultimately revealed as the teen. She slowly transitions to the other world, with the lights shifting to a red wash and the company singing a song mourning her unjust death.
The production is something of an update on Our Town with an environmentalist twist. Although the overall direction and implementation by the actors verges on forced and pre-planned at times, it is a cute, short and thought-provoking evening. While the acting is at sometimes a little stiff, the commedia dell’arte –inspired stock characters and gestures are refreshing. Everyone is so committed to their distinct characters, although it would have been nice to see more moments of authentic connection among the actors and with the audience. It should be noted, however, that Desi Waters as Joanie is especially good at delivering her punch lines, often muttered under her breath. Plus, the set construction, executed by actors Cammerron Baits and Brandon Thane Wilson is aesthetically pleasing. The simple touches on the contrast between the recycling bin, the foliage, and the bedroom with French doors keeps the stage appropriately sectioned.
For a simple evening that will make you laugh and spark the ecologist in you, head to the Hudson Guild Theater. Hurry, because tomorrow night (Sunday, February 7) is the last night My Backyard is showing at the festival!
My Backyard. Final Show 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 7, at the Hudson Guild Theater (441 W. 26th Street between Ninth Avenue and Tenth Avenue.) venusnytheaterfestival.com.