Actors' Playhouse has an identity crisis. How else do you explain the emotional whiplash induced by its programming every year? This is a theater torn between cutting-edge drama and milquetoast comedy, between shows that push its audience in new directions and ones that reward passive complacency.
Two seasons ago, it followed the powerful one-two punch of Other Desert Cities and In the Heights with the limp slapstick and pandering populism, respectively, of The Fox on the Fairway and Rated P... for Parenthood; last season, the cerebral and literary Scott & Hem in the Garden of Allah paved the way toward another doggedly unchallenging comedy potpourri, Mid-Life 2 (The Crisis Continues).
As for this season, what's the theater's follow-up to the intoxicating Murder Ballad, the company's finest achievement in years? It's another easy provincial comedy, Tom Dudzick's Miracle on South Division Street, a show set in 2010 that feels like a sitcom from 30 years ago, anchored by phony epigrammatic quips, punch lines and plot twists that are forecast a mile away, and gentle jibes at religion calculated to offend no one. Last month, Actors' Playhouse was an incubator of experimentalism, and this month it's a clearinghouse for the middlebrow.
The play is set in Buffalo on Christmas Eve, in the kitchen of the salt-of-the-earth Nowak family, where Clara (Elizabeth Dimon) still raises her three grown children: the eldest, Beverly (Jeni Hacker); middle child Ruth (Deborah L. Sherman); and the youngest, Jimmy (Clay Cartland). Affectionately designed by Tim Bennett, the lived-in set is heavily propped with decorative pots and pans, holiday tchotchkes, a wall calendar scribbled with appointments, and a Jesus magnet on the refrigerator. The snow-fogged windows reveal the modest working-class world outside, and ona brick wall on stage left hangs a sign for an attached soup kitchen -- converted from a former barbershop whose proprietor, Clara's father, witnessed a Christmas miracle.
As the story goes -- a tale the Nowak clan has, for decades, been retelling to anyone who will listen -- the Virgin Mary appeared before Grandpa's eyes, bringing along a message of world peace (this aspect of Miracle on South Division Street has a nugget of truth, inspired by an 18-foot barbershop statue of the Virgin Mother the playwright encountered in 1950s Buffalo). To commemorate the occasion, Clara's father commissioned a statue of Mary, which still stands in a shrine in the converted soup kitchen, where meals are "prepared on holy ground."
A Catholic so devout that she won't even accept that Jesus was a Jew ("He was the first Catholic!" she objects), Clara has taken her father's vision as an article of faith ever since -- verification that she and her family are on the right pious path. But on this day, Ruth, an aspiring actor and playwright, has arrived home with news for the whole family: She's going to write and perform a one-woman show based on the family legend -- except the family doesn't know the whole story behind the supposed miracle.
Ruth's revelations will rock the Nowaks' world, and they are met with skepticism, anger, and resistance. There are elevated voices and fists slammed on tables, though in the imposing pantheon of dysfunctional-family dramedies, this one skims a surface so superficial that by the time it decides to move us, it's hard to view the action as anything but cloying.
None of this is meant to disparage the professionals who mounted this turkey. Separating the production from the source material is essential in appreciating the show's formal blessings. Director David Arisco paces the story well, especially in the second act, where Dudzick's banter attains an energetic crackle broken up by extended beats of dumbfounded stares. These moments of silence, milked for posterity, are funnier than the dialogue.
Arisco's cast honors the work, with Sherman in top form as the gangly Ruth, appropriately clothed by costume designer Ellis Tillman in oversized glasses and a sweater with unfortunate horizontal stripes. Dressed in bowling attire for an intended day at the lanes, Hacker's blunt Beverly brings a lively combativeness and sarcastic wit that lift the show when she breezes through the door halfway through the first act.
Cartland, known for his outsized comic persona, is more subdued than usual here, donning a backward baseball cap and faded Miller Lite T-shirt that curiously make him appear at least ten years younger than his character is supposed to be. His performance feels reined in, like an improv actor patiently acquiescing to a script, but he grows more comfortable in the second act. Dimon is ever the consummate craftswoman, and she's the best part of the show. The sincerity and naivety with which she imbues Clara goes a long way at selling this middling material, and so does the hurt that emerges, organically, across her face.
The cast earned the standing ovation it received opening night, but as Shakespeare astutely wrote, the play's the thing, and without meaningful and memorable words from which to begin, there is only so much a cast can do to overcome the handicap.
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Many will disagree with this assessment. There's a reason Miracle on South Division Street is, per Arisco's note in the playbill, "tearing up the regional theater circuit across the country." It is a "good" play in the sense that Neil Simon's works are "good" at entertaining the masses for a couple of hours. This kind of intellectually famished work may be fine for the so-called average theatergoer, but it shouldn't be. There are, and have been, companies in South Florida that program only this sort of material, but Actors' Playhouse isn't one of them.
Forgive me for expecting more from a theater that has, time and again, proven itself more than capable of offering it.
Miracle on South Division Street runs through December 28 at Actors Playhouse, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; $15-$53; 305-444-9293, actorsplayhouse.org.