Thursday, April 5, 2007

Review - Tales of the Lost Formicans (Nicu’s Spoon)

Stage Buzz Review by Byrne Harrison

An alien, describing the culture of the Formicans (its name for late 20th century Americans), in Constance Congdon’s Tales of the Lost Formicans, refers to it as “complex, but strangely intangible.” This is also a perfect description of Congdon’s play. Dealing with aliens, Alzheimer’s, the disintegration of the family, middle-class apathy, and any number of other subjects, the play is hard to classify, and even harder to describe.

Luckily, Congdon’s play seems to be about taking away whatever message resonates most with each individual audience member. Don’t be surprised if you take away a completely different message than everyone else.

The main story concerns Cathy (Rebecca Challis), a woman whose husband has left her for a much younger woman. She leaves her life in New York and, son Eric (Nico Phillips) in tow, returns to Colorado to live with her parents, Evelyn (Celia Bressack) and Jim (Brian J. Coffey). Jim is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and gets progressively worse over the course of the play. Dealing with her father, her perpetually angry teenage son, and the attentions of Jerry (Michael Hartney), the local conspiracy nut, proves to be almost more than she can handle.
And then there are the aliens.

Rather than writing a basic family drama, Congdon presents the audience with an anthropology lesson, as a group of aliens observe and attempt to understand the lives of this group of humans. They get most of it wrong, but of course, that’s the point. The results force us to view ourselves and our lives in a different light.

Nicu’s Spoon is an extraordinary company in that they celebrate the diversity of acting talent in the city by casting “multi-racial, multi-abled, multi-aged, and multi-gendered talent.” The cast of Formican’s certainly is true to that mission, and generally speaking, they are a diverse and talented group. Two actors in particular, Michael Hartney and Brian J. Coffey, are outstanding. Hartney, as the socially awkward Jerry, creates a character that is so sympathetic, it almost physically hurts every time he says or does the wrong thing. And watching Coffey’s Jim devolve from a robust foreman to a confused, shuffling old man is heartbreaking.

My main problem with the play, and sadly one which I couldn’t overcome, is that the world that Congdon was writing about in the late ‘80s doesn’t seem as relevant now. Congdon’s Formicans were on the verge of winning the Cold War. Though there was a Bush in the White House, they had yet to experience the first Gulf War. 9/11 wasn’t even something they could have conceived of. Their America, pre-cell phones and the Internet, seems almost quaint.

In an effort to overcome this, director Brett Maughan shifts the play to present day America and adds in references to Bush and Iraq. Unfortunately, this just makes it seem more out of place, or rather, out of time. Of course certain aspects of the show still resonate – dealing with Alzheimer’s, divorce, intergenerational family issues, etc. But it just doesn’t seem to be enough to make the show work as a whole.

While Nicu’s Spoon is certainly a company to watch, their upcoming production of Shakespeare’s Richard III might prove a better showcase for their talents and their unique mission.

Written by Constance Congdon
Directed by Brett Maughan
Stage Manager: Kathleen Conway
Lighting Designer: Steven Wolf
Lighting Design Intern: Stephen Halouvas
Prop & Scenic Designer: Brett Maughan & S. Barton-Farcas
AD/Production Assistant: Alvaro Sena
ASM/Production Intern: Chrissy Capobianco
Costume Designer: Thomas Cassetta
Build Crew Head: John Trevellini
Lights/Sound Running Crew: Kathleen Conway & Tom Cassetta
ASL Interpreters: Pamela O. Mitchell, Pat Dash, Gerald Small & Sharon Williams

Featuring Rebecca Challis (Cathy), Brian J. Coffey (Jim), Celia Bressack (Evelyn), Nico Phillips (Eric), Lindsay Goranson (Judy), Michael Hartney (Jerry), Jovinna Chan (Head Alien), Russell Waldman (Alien 2), Dirk Smile (Alien 3)

Theatre 54
244 W. 54th Street
Through April 15th
Wed.-Sun.: 8 pm