A Bob Greene Rant
Accessibility is not always a good thing. Yes, it creates myriad opportunities, but it also allows for great gems to be hidden under lumps of coal.
Case in point, Robert Liebowitz.
The off-off Broadway movement of the 5os through the 80s produced countless plays and playwrights. Some lucky enough to enter our public consciousness, others pushed aside … unjustly.
The American Theater of Actors hosted a triumvirate of three works by this soldier of the revolution. Some – as press materials relate – harken back to the 80s. And we are the better for this revival.
Liebowitz’ style of writing is fascinating. Somehow he turns profanity, anger, and misery into poetry. He displays for us people on the fringe of the fringe but makes us feel for them and even admire them. We even laugh with them, and in some cases – when things are the most heart wrenching, laugh for them.
The first piece of the night was a quickie about oblivion. Grande Grande brings a desolate man (played with Keaton-like sad-clown demeanor by Kevin Hauver) and a modern young woman (Molly Callahan with great caustic wit) together in an effete coffee house to discuss the world. We come away seeing the end of one generation and the reason why the next hasn’t learned from them. A brief moment to get us ready for what’s ahead. Mario Claudio pulled double duty as the comic relief and Greek chorus in the guise of a snarky baristo. Joe Pitzvalty supplied proper timing and effect. While the sexuality between the characters seemed a bit default it didn’t hurt the strong message.
The second play’s theme was a familiar one. A couple returning home from an exercision to Atlantic City explore their relationship. We discover that they are not married. Well, he is, to someone else. Bus Ride Home shows us how the pursuit of happiness brings about desirpation. Kathy Noonan-Sturges’ shrill tones coupled with Ken Coughlin’s brilliant comic mugging for the camera – at first glance – give us an old fashioned vaudeville comic turn. This is in part to Ioan Ardelean’s clever use of classical-style direction. But it is these red herrings that made for a twist ending that is genuinely heartbreaking.
The final piece, an award-winner and professional run in previous decades, is an oddly titled COULDA WOULDA SHOULDA. Directed by Allan Smithee, who obviously focused the parable within the material, this power-packed dramedy sermons to us the final hours in the life of a degenerate gambler. Liebowitz brilliantly hands us Damon Runyon gamblers with dirty mouths. We snicker at the colorful language and interaction until the million watt bulb of reality is shone in our – and their – faces.
The cast – to a man (literally as there are no women in this piece) – is superb. Anthony J. Gallo as the owner of the numbers club where the action takes place is a perfect slice of character reality. Clever turn of phrase, colloquial hand gestures, and even a few clever takes, serve as an overture to set up this tragic opera. He is joined by Tommy Sturges as a down-and-out and well-forgotten member of the good old days, citing baseball games and union formations. Sturges glorified historical narration allowed us to understand the journey these men took to get here. Michael Romeo Ruocco as an up-and-coming degenerate gambler displayed joyous energy and stage command. His comic timing allowed us to be suckered into his own turmoil shown in select moments. He made us care about his plight. He was entertaining to watch, but we all hoped he’d wise up … and run away.
TJ Jenkins and Ted Montuori were superior as the leading tragedians in this play – written in restoration style. Part comedy team, part street derelicts, we watched a George and Lennie of the end of the last century interact. Their boyish banter was engaging and a final scene between them, painful.
The cold water dashed in our faces was that of Jay Michaels as the loan shark Jenkins engages creating the ruination of his life. Michaels characterization was uncomfortable, vicious, pointed, and in other words, perfect. He elicited terror on and off the stage as we, the audience, were afraid to laugh at his humor but dared not insult him by not responding. His faustian rage at the end of the play was like a cymbal crash … over and over.
Robert Liebowitz is heralded as a member of “the movement.” OK, that’s good. Let’s now herald him as a playwright of great vision and storytelling.
I’m heading to the Drama Book store now to buy his anthology to see what I have missed.