Monday, March 28, 2016

"Dot" - Straddling two separate worlds

By Judd Hollander

Most people, whether they want to admit it or not, routinely exist in two separate planes of existence. The first being life as it actually is, while the second is life as they want it to be. Or, more accurately, the way they wish life could be. Facing this confluence, and being forced to deal with it, is at the heart of Coleman Domingo's funny, powerful, touching, and somewhat overlong Dot, now at the Vineyard Theatre.

At her mother's home in West Philadelphia shortly before Christmas, Shelly (Sharon Washington) is preparing breakfast for Dotty (Marjorie Johnson), her aging mom, while continually ranting about life to her childhood friend Jackie (Finnerty Steeves). Jackie, having long since decamped for the bright lights of New York City, has returned for a visit while trying to deal with an unexpected personal situation. She just turning 40 and finding herself pregnant by another woman's husband. Jackie was also once in love with Shelly's younger brother Donnie (Stephen Conrad Moore). Until she caught Donnie and his friend Adam (Chris Hanlon) in a rather compromising position.

Donnie and Adam have since married, though all is not well on that front either. Donnie wanting to start a family and being content to age gracefully, while Adam is more obsessed with youth and keeping trim. In fact, the couple are currently in the middle of a juice cleanse. Though Donnie is much more interested in the oatmeal cookies in his mother's kitchen cabinet and the chicken in her fridge.

The final member of the family is Shelly's younger sister, and D-list reality star Averie (Libya V. Pugh). She currently hoping to land a spot on "Celebrity Mud Wrestling". However for the moment, she's staying in the basement of Shelly's house and also taking care of Shelly's young son, while Shelly watches over Dotty.

As is soon made clear, Dotty is suffering from Alzheimer's. A condition Donnie likes to consider as being in its early stages, but as Shelly tells him at one point, the early stages have long gone since ended. Dotty often not knowing what time it is, what she's having for breakfast, asking for her long-deceased husband, not always recognizing her own children, or even remembering there's a gigantic Christmas tree in the living room.

Aided by their Kazakhstan caregiver Fidel (Michael Rosen), which whom Dotty has bonded, Shelly is trying to do the best she can in an increasingly untenable situation. However, just like her mother, Shelly is refusing to relinquish control to anyone, firmly believing she knows best. Even when she does ask her siblings for help, said request comes with a caveat that things get done her way or not at all. As the family gathers for the Christmas holiday, conflict and denial is definitely on the menu as everyone involved is forced to take their blinders off and face some heard truths. Though one person will be actually be putting their blinders on, so everyone present can learn a long overdue lesson. 

As Donnie and Averie try to balance their mother's needs with what's going on in their own lives, and Sharon tries to maintain order in a house that is always seemingly verging on chaos, it is Dotty, surprisingly enough, who remains the real rock of sanity. At least when she's having her more lucid moments. Not only is she fully aware of what's happening to her at those times, but she's also angry, upset and most of all scared, as she watches her life being taken away bit by bit.

Dot is first and foremost, a play about family. Specifically, the choices this particular family is forced to face and the need for them to come together in a time of crisis. However as Domingo quite correctly points out, there some problems that cannot be fixed, no matter how hard you wish they could be. Sometimes all you can do is try to make things as easy as possible for those in need as events move toward their inevitable conclusion.

Domingo also manages to leaven the seriousness of the subject matter with some great moments of humor; comedy and tragedy often considered to be both sides of the same coin, and said relationship being quite evident here. In addition to Donnie's reaction to the juice diet, there's Jackie observing one of Shelly's continual tirades about her situation and when it's over, only being curious as to why Dotty still has a rotary phone in her kitchen - one that looks like it hasn't been redecorated in 40 years; and while a nice set, it does seem a bit out of step with the rather elegant living room we see in act two. Susan Stroman's direction also works well for the most part in keeping the show veering between these two extremes. A sequence between Shelly and Donnie bonding over a package of Oreos being particularly well-played.

Unfortunately, while Domingo clearly has lot to say, he also tosses far too many ingredients into the mix. The entire subplot with Jackie while nice, really doesn't need to be there. Granted, she's meant to be a sort of prodigal daughter returning to her childhood home and realizing how much has changed in her absence. Her outsider point of view also making her a stand-in for the audience in that regard. However Jackie's storyline also takes away from the central issue of Dotty and her children, especially since Jackie is more concerned with her own problems than with what's going on in her unofficial family, In addition, Jackie has never gotten over her long-ago breakup with Donnie. That being another matter not well integrated into the narrative and which really feels like it belongs in another play. 

Also not really working - and for the same reasons as described in the preceding paragraph - is the handling of Donnie and Adam's relationship. There's no denying the two actors have a good chemistry together, and that their characters both have a lot to say. Additionally, a scene of Adam and Dotty dancing together, and the reasons behind it, is quite touching. Unfortunately, many of the scenes concerning the two men often feel added on and a deliberate effort to pad the play rather than letting the central narrative stand on its own. Also, some pivotal scenes concerning Donnie and Adam come way too late in the tale and really needed to been worked in earlier, if at all. As it stands now, Dot could easily benefit by cutting about 20-30 minutes of what ended up on stage. Though it might have been nice to see Shelly's relationship with her son examined, as it related to the rest of the family.

As Dotty, Johnson powerfully brings to life a woman facing the abyss while trying desperately to hold on to whatever cognizant thought she can before it all disappears into a void of gray. Washington is fine as Shelly, a caring and dependable person with a terminally short fuse - one which has taken her to the very edge of a nervous breakdown, even if she doesn't quite realize it. Pugh does very well as Averie. The character in the beginning coming off as the most annoying person in the piece, but who, by the end has developed into the most level-headed of all. Moore and Hanlon do good work as marrieds Donnie and Adam. Each having a series of moments that show their characters to be, if not always well-rounded, then at least fully human and real. Steeves is okay as Jackie, who finally gets to put some of her past demons to rest, while Rosen does some good work as Fidel. He trying to do what he can to help this family, while at the same time, desperately missing his own.

When the show stays on this message, it is powerful and poignant indeed. Hopefully Mr. Domingo will have a chance to rework this show in the future, highlighting its core issues while jettisoning some of the extraneous material, or perhaps using it in a play yet to be written. 

Featuring: Marjorie Johnson (Dotty), Sharon Washington (Shelly), Finnerty Steeves (Jackie), Stephen Conrad Moore (Donnie), Colin Hanlon (Adam), Libya V. Pugh (Averie), Michael Rosen (Fidel)

by Coleman Domingo

Scenic Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Kara Harmon
Lighting Designer: Ben Stanton
Sound Designer: Tom Morse
Hair & Makeup Designer: Dave Bova
Casting: Henry Russell Bergstein, CSA
Production Stage Manager: Roy Harris
Production Supervisor: Adrian White
Production Manager: You Want What? Productions, Inc., Nick Kargel
Press Representative: Sam Rudy Media Relations
General Manager: DR Theatrical Management
Directed by Susan Stroman

Presented by the Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street

Tickets: 212-353-0303 or
Running Time: 2 Hours, 20 Minutes, with one intermission

Closed: March 20, 2016

No comments: