by: Michael Bracken
“Never work with children or animals,” said W.C. Fields. The comedian wasn’t joking. A case in point is Maggie Bofill’s very likable Winners at Ensemble Studio Theatre. Grant Shaud (of Murphy Brown fame, playing Brian) and Florencia Lozano (as his wife Mabel), two accomplished actors giving accomplished performances, don’t stand a chance against the likes of Arielle Goldman as their daughter Gabby or David Gelles as son Tommy. Even Curran Connor (as the family dog, Buck) and Stephanie Hsu (cat Marie Antoinette) give them a run for their money.
But first a little context. Think nuclear family: Mom, Dad, two kids, cat and dog. Think unspecified location somewhere in Middle America. Think sixties sitcom and daytime soap opera merged into one and re-molded with lots of fancy and a little bite.
Father may know best but Mom’s bringing home the bacon. Unemployed for months, Brian’s still in pajamas as Mabel, looking professional but sexy, leaves for work. Son Tommy hasn’t told anyone he lost his job at the Gap a week ago. And his younger sister Gabby wanders around the house in plaid pants that look about three sizes too big. She doesn’t speak much but observes all and photographs much of it. That would include a personal text message from her mother’s boss, with whom Mom is having an affair.
Playwright Bofill weaves various plotlines – Gabby’s attempted school transfer, Tommy’s ex-girlfriend’s sexual exploitation, Brian’s taking Tommy’s old job, Mabel and Brian’s dealing with the cracks in their marriage – together seamlessly. All involve heavy issues, addressed with a light touch. They’re also real family fodder presented in a real family context; that is, if you consider a talking dog and cat realism.
Yet Buck and Marie Antoinette don’t detract from the human interaction. Neither do they do much to move along the plot, but they keep the audience from taking things too seriously. Clad in black tights and a white striped sweater, Marie Antoinette moves like a dancer. She’s manipulative but not all bad. Buck’s a big lug, all in brown, friendly and simple, prone to sliding when he’s in a hurry. Despite their great potential to be cloying, the pets are surprisingly entertaining. Their movement is stylized; their personalities distinct; their lines and demeanor often comical.
Goldman, a ringer for Emma Watson, is riveting as Gabby. The oddest member of the clan, Gabby is also the wisest and the funniest. Goldman sensitively captures her fear of speaking and, once beyond that, her fearlessness as to speaking the truth. She’s as direct as a laser beam. Gabby hates both her old and her new schools, but prefers the rigidity of the former because at least “you knew where you stood.”
Brother Tommy has a lot going on, and Gelles delivers the whole package. With a lost job, a lost girlfriend who’s being sexually harassed, and a lost (metaphorically at least) family, he often loses his cool but always returns to his nonchalant home base. He clearly loves his sister and is frustrated by his parents and the world at large. He complains that children aren’t supposed to be the parents, the situation in which he finds himself.
Lozano and Shaud have the thankless job of functioning mostly as straightmen, which they do well.
Pamela Berlin’s direction is fluid and moves the play along at an appropriately brisk pace. It would be nice, however, if anger could be expressed with some variation on yelling, at least some of the time. Sydney Maresca’s costumes insightfully reflect the characters that wear them.
Winners ends on a ceremonial note, orchestrated by Gabby with help from Tommy, reconciling the four family members. It’s truly moving: a fitting resolution of the crosscurrents that precede it.
Winners, at Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street plays through February 8. For more information, visit http://www.ensemblestudiotheatre.org/