Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"Any Given Monday": Fast, Furious, Touching and Funny

Review by Judd Hollander
Photos by Carol Rosegg

File this one under "B" for "Black Comedy" and "H" for "Hilarious" as playwright Bruce Graham uses his work Any Given Monday to put a delightfully fresh spin on the family in crises storyline, while creating a world where political correctness goes by the boards, liberal guilt is examined and discarded, and the Machiavellian theme of the ends justifying the means has never rung so true. The play is presented by Act II Playhouse at 59E59 Theaters.

Public school teacher Lenny (Paul Michael Valley) is in a major funk. A normally quiet man, with an old-fashioned sense of values regarding courtesy, politeness, and respect, he finds his world upended when Risa (Hillary B. Smith), his wife of 24 years, leaves him for Frank, a wealthy man who designs Wal-Marts. With his left-leaning daughter Sarah (Lauren Ashley Carter) currently away at college, Lenny sits in front of the TV watching To Kill a Mockingbird until his friend Mickey (Michael Mastro) drops by.  Mickey, after literally bouncing off the walls, the result of too much coffee and not enough sleep, announces that he shot Frank in revenge for Frank ruining Lenny's marriage.

While at first Lenny and Sarah, the latter who has returned unannounced from school, are horrified at Mickey's confession, they soon begin to realize how they can use his actions to their own advantage. Lenny has rid himself, albeit indirectly, of a rival and thus might have a shot (no pun intended) at getting Risa back. Meanwhile, Sarah sees Mickey's actions as the basis for a thesis to help her get into graduate school. ("I have a degree in philosophy and I don't want to teach. I am so screwed.")

More than a play about a Jewish family in turmoil, Any Given Monday examines questions of right and wrong and what one should do when confronted with circumstances as described above. The black humor running throughout the show gives the entire work a sense of outrageousness as the audience is left wondering what will happen next, while at the same time rooting for the various characters to come through on the other side happy, hearty and, for the most part, unscathed.

It should be pointed out that while there is much humor present, there is also a great deal of drama and pain, as the playwright keeps coming back to the subject of family and the lengths people will go to keep what they have. From Sarah wondering about the annual family photo at the Passover dinner to Risa and Lenny trying to figure out what comes next, the need to hold onto something familiar and secure becomes paramount to them all.

Interestingly, it is Mickey who quickly becomes the moral center of the play. A grounded realist and a bit of a sociopath, he is also disarmingly politically incorrect, making his points not against minorities, though he does have a thing about homeless people (he works in the subway and gets annoyed when they jump in front of trains), but rather against the liberal elite, here personified by Sarah, who Mickey calls out more than once. Such as why it's okay to feel good about the death of a rich white guy, but be upset when a young black man, who's a habitual criminal, is shot by police after he first tries to kill the cops. Mickey also can't stand how America has turned into such a litigious society. His riff on a woman burned by hot coffee is brilliant. Mastro does a fantastic job with the role, at first showing Mickey as a seemingly unkempt leech of a man, but one soon revealed to be intelligent, methodical and quite protective of those he cares about. This is definitely a guy you'd like to hang out with in a bar, if not spend too much time with elsewhere.

Valley makes Lenny, perhaps the toughest role in the show, quite believable. The character at first being a sort of doormat, but also one who loves his wife dearly and who will do anything to get her back. Though when the opportunity presents itself, he begins to realize (with some prodding by Sarah and Mickey) that may not be what he truly wants. Valley also does well with a speech where he rails about changing values in society and how he's tired of always apologizing for being who he is.

Smith does very well as Risa, especially since she really doesn't interact with the rest of the cast until the final section of the play, but she's still able to explain realistically the reasons behind her affair and what she needs in a relationship with Frank, Lenny, or anyone else for that matter. It also helps that Smith and Valley have an excellent chemistry, making their scenes together that much more realistic.

Carter is good as Sarah, the young liberal who gets into arguments with her parents, classmates, friends and teachers over faith, human nature, the Holocaust and racial equality (her explanation as to why she has trouble with relationships is hilarious). A character who changes internally during the course of the play, the playwright also allows Sarah to get in some salient points of her own; such as that a well-to-do white man's death gets far more attention by the police than that of a poor member of a minority race.

Bud Martin's direction is strong, keeping the story moving nicely and the various characters off balance just enough to add to the overall feeling of uncertainty present in the script. The show does take a little while to get going and could use some tightening early on, but things pick up soon enough with everything seemingly about to go off the rails more than once, yet Martin and the cast keep the show firmly fixed on its ultimate course while making the entire experience both interesting and involving.

Dirk Durossette's set of Lenny and Risa's home is very good, giving it a nice lived-in but also clean look, at least in the beginning. Sound design by Jacob Subotnick, which includes a football game and dialogue from the afore-mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird, seamlessly fits into the proceedings. Lighting by Paul Miller is nicely subdued throughout.

Any Given Monday is a very enjoyable journey through the social foibles and excuses people make to justify their actions and feel better about themselves. Best of all, the characters presented are all quite endearing and you find yourself caring about what happens to them almost from the beginning. A good job by all.

Any Given Monday

Featuring: Lauren Ashley Carter (Sarah), Michael Mastro (Mickey), Hillary B. Smith (Risa), Paul Michael Valley (Lenny)

Written by Bruce Graham
Directed by Bud Martin
Scenic Design by Dirk Durossette
Lighting Design by Paul Miller
Costume Design by Bobby Pearce
Sound Design by Jacob Subotnick
Casting by Cindi Rush Casting
Strategic Marketing: AKA
Production Stage Manager: Kerri J. Lynch
Production Manager; Joshua Scherr
Associate Producer: The Active Theater
General Management Consultant: Dr Theatrical Management

Presented by Act II Playhouse at 59E59 Theaters (Theater B)
59East 59th Street
Running Time: 2 Hours, 10 minutes (including intermission)
Closes: November 6, 2011

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