A Boy Grows in Brooklyn

It's two weeks before Stewie's bar mitzvah and his family is having a collective breakdown. Doris, his mother, sits on the couch transforming her wedding gown into a Bride of Frankenstein costume for Halloween. Herbie, his father, shuffles home after work and refuses to talk to anyone. Younger brother Mitchell escapes into fantasy by working on Willy!, a musical version of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. And Stewie announces he won't go through with his impending rite of passage because Judaism is meaningless.

So begins 1989's The Loman Family Picnic, an amusing and disturbing bildungsroman for the stage about growing up in Brooklyn circa 1965. Written by Donald Margulies, author of the Obie Award-winning Sight Unseen (1991), the comedy derives its name from a production number in Mitchell's Broadway musical A a fantasy about a happy family outing in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. On-stage at Florida Playwrights' Theatre (FPT) in Hollywood, where it starts slowly but eventually picks up speed, The Loman Family Picnic chronicles events before, during, and after Stewie's bar mitzvah. Playwright Margulies relays his tale through a series of chronological scenes: Doris (Angela Thomas) convinces Stewie (Tony Elias) to go on with the big day; Mitchell (Nicolae Popescu), Stewie, and their mother dress up for Halloween; pictures are taken before the bar mitzvah party; Herbie (Rory Parker) freaks out over how much the whole affair costs.

These darkly comic vignettes unspool like home-movie outtakes of the family's most embarrassing moments. Yet Margulies knows they only partially convey the reality of family life. Therefore he intersperses the straightforward story line with asides to the audience, the appearance of dead relatives bearing advice (including Doris's Aunt Marsha, played by Teresa Turiano, who also directs the play), musical numbers from Willy!, and four versions of the play's ending. Although awkward in places, such interruptions change the comedy's sequential time frame into a surreal pastiche that has the sketchy quality of memory. This elliptical form of narrative seems truer to the way we recollect the past than does a linear telling of the same events.

In the hands of director Turiano, some of these devices prove clumsy. Ungainly concepts to begin with -- such as one of Doris and Herbie's conversations leaping forward into the future so that they discuss how each of them dies -- they lend the production an uneven, almost amateurish feel when staged by Turiano. And the first act would benefit from snappier, faster-paced direction and more rigorous attention to production values; scene changes in the tiny theater, where people in the first row find themselves practically nose to nose with the actors and the stage crew, are less than crisp. Turiano does pick up the tempo in act two, which features a frightening outburst by an enraged Herbie and a riotous montage of songs from Mitchell's opus in progress, performed by the entire clan.

At the heart of The Loman Family Picnic lie the characterizations of Doris and Herbie, Depression-era babies who reach a middle-class pinnacle in a Coney Island high-rise apartment, only to find themselves caught in a miserably codependent marriage. Although they're affectionately written characters, Doris and Herbie run the risk of turning into Jewish stereotypes if interpreted too broadly; after all, Doris rules the roost as the controlling mother, while Herbie sulks in silence as the ineffectual father. But here Turiano plays her strong suit. Her direction draws out the humanity within the parents, allowing the actors to avoid cliched portrayals.

Angela Thomas grabs hold of her role as Doris and never once lets go. She infuses the character with a larger-than-life energy, a bottomless capacity for denial, glimmers of self-awareness, and the desperate frustration of a woman burdened with misdirected ambition. And in act two Thomas lets her voice rip during that production number about the Lomans going on a picnic to Prospect Park. Frankly, I could have listened to Thomas burn through torch songs into the wee hours.

Initially, Rory Parker renders the vacant-eyed Herbie so enervated that the character barely seems to have a pulse; you have to strain to hear Parker's murmuring, much less to get a sense of the character he plays. Yet in act two, as Herbie's financial and emotional pressures build to a crescendo, Parker has him explode at his family with a terrifying, heartbreaking, and utterly believable fury.

As Stewie, thirteen-year-old Tony Elias has a tendency to garble several lines into one long sing-songy sentence. But he also imbues Stewie with a credible bar-mitzvah-boy swagger that never dislodges the chip on the kid's shoulder. And the actor effectively juggles Stewie's disappointment in his father with his anger at him.

Ten-year-old Nicolae Popescu sings and dances his way through the role of Mitchell -- a character based on playwright Margulies as a boy -- with consummate self-possession. "I'm a born overachiever," Mitchell announces to his mother, and, in Popescu's hands, he's also eerily perceptive, seeing the parallels between his family's brand of tragedy and the Lomans' in Death of a Salesman, a play he has read three times because he couldn't believe its similarity to his own life. While Mitchell's musical version of Miller's drama comes across as comical, it also plays as poignant; Popescu conveys just how much Mitchell will strive to create a bearable alternative to an anxiety-filled home.

Hardly a major work like Salesman, which Margulies goes to great lengths to both honor and satirize, The Loman Family Picnic nonetheless takes some structural and emotional risks. Although unpolished in places, FPT's production satisfyingly balances the humor, pain, and rage in Margulies's script while presenting an offbeat gestalt of family life.

Stage Notes
Akropolis Acting Company was one of last season's most ambitious South Florida theater groups, bringing us such mind-bending works as Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade and Jean Genet s The Balcony. Yet we haven't seen a production from the fiery ensemble this year.

"We've been struggling to find a home," reports artistic director Marta Garcia, lamenting a predicament shared by too many inspired but small theater companies. Now, however, for the first time since the company was forced to leave its Coral Gables storefront space at the end of last spring because the building was going to be torn down, Akropolis seems to have found a place to rest its theatrical bones. Mario Ernesto Sanchez, founder and producing artistic director of Teatro Avante and the International Hispanic Theatre Festival of Miami, has agreed to share El Carrusel Theatre, also in the Gables, with Akropolis.

"We sat down [together] and found out what each of us needed," explains Garcia. Obviously, Akropolis wanted a place to stage productions. And according to Garcia, Sanchez "needed some technical support in the production aspects and basic taking care of the theater."

Sanchez confirms the arrangement. "We don't use the theater 52 weeks a year because of shrinking budgets," he notes. "I said [to Garcia], your group can help me out in technical aspects, lighting, sound design, and operating the theater. In return I'll help you with administration and grant writing."

But Sanchez admits his motivations are as idealistic as they are pragmatic: "The name of the game is survival [for theaters]. Every time I see someone with that kind of dedication and love and commitment to theater, I have to take my hat off to them. And she [Garcia] needs all the support she can get." Laughing, he adds, "Maybe some of the hope, youth, energy, and optimism everyone has in the group will rub off on me."

Akropolis's season opener, Samuel Beckett's Endgame, debuts at El Carrusel tonight, Thursday, January 11, and runs through January 27. Directed by Garcia, it features actors Paul Tei, Juan Sanchez, and New World School of the Arts faculty members Ellen Davis and Richard Janaro. The production has been a long time in coming for Garcia, who rehearsed some of the same actors for more than six weeks last spring until she had to cancel the show owing to actors' illnesses. Then, before combining forces with Teatro Avante, Garcia had planned to open Endgame in the long narrow room on the second floor of Tobacco Road. Small and struggling theater companies often utilize that space in the downtown Miami tavern because the price is right; the bar does not charge for use of the room. But it's available only on Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday nights. Not surprisingly, Garcia expressed relief at finding a permanent home where she could mount Beckett's absurdist comedy-drama on weekends.

Still, she admits to being somewhat daunted by bringing in an audience to El Carrusel. "We [now] have 200 seats to fill," she points out. "That's a big change for us from 40 seats last year. But we have tremendous confidence in our production of this challenging work. We're excited about presenting Beckett in Miami. We hope Miami audiences respond to our excitement."

The Loman Family Picnic.
Written by Donald Margulies; directed by Teresa Turiano; with Angela Thomas, Rory Parker, Teresa Turiano, Nicolae Popescu, and Tony Elias. Through January 14. Call 925-8123 or see "Calendar" listings.

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