There is a soup kitchen out there somewhere with our name on it. Or there should be. The Grand Concourse, now at Playwrights Horizons is a look into a world few of us know or are interested in knowing. Heidi Schreck aims to be our tour guide. She doesn’t take us to see the clients, however, she takes us back stage.
Ms. Schreck has populated her play with characters that refuse to fit a mold. Sister Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) has been at this work for over a decade, and is pretty much staying there because she has no where else to go. Her “faith” has been reduced to praying one minute a day. She uses the microwave to time her. She is feeding the indigent with bushels of vegetables augmented by beans and rice. It is a thankless and endless task.
The maintenance man Oscar (Bobby Moren) is a guy whose life is on pause. This is his only, and he has hopes of a degree. Meanwhile his girlfriend Lydia wants to get married. He tip toes around that idea while he focuses on his work at the shelter.
Frog (Lee Wilkof) is a functioning homeless person with a sharp mind whose carve has shifted one too many times. he is a regular trespasser into the kitchen, and when Shelley is not paying attention to the rules she likes his company.
The new kid on the block is Emma (Ismenia Mendes) who wants to volunteer. She comes from out of nowhere and is put to work on the spot. Soon she charges up the atmosphere by word and deed that are both predictable and unbelievable. WHile Schreck has grounded her other characters with character details that are unique and intriguing, Emma is let off the leash to run amuck, and the story is diminished because of it.
The story of why she is there, her circumstances and her problems affect all the others. She is one large antagonistic element – the kind who keeps apologizing while she drops one dish after another onto the floor. She does manage to help out some of the men get jobs, but this all happens off stage. we see only a fleeting glimpse of her kindness, and it doesn’t stick to our ribs. When she has her final meltdown, the ensuing catastrophe is also unbelievable.
The performances could not be better. Bernstine does some of her finest work yet as she pinpoints the exact locations of Shelley’s emotions. Moreno avoids the minefield of cliche and brings his character front and center with style. Wilkof treds the tightrope of crazy/not crazy with a light touch. Mendes brings a singleminded quality to Emma that makes you think she is sipping her own Kool Aide
One enormous nail in the coffin is the food. Although they slice and dice with the best of them, the idea that they are making soup is never believable. There is one enormous pot that is supposed to feed a herd of folk – kind of like Jesus and the fishes I guess. in addition, that pot is never ever full. I realize that schlepping it around could be difficult but guess what – people in soup kitchens do it all the time. To have such an integral element of this story be unsupported is a gaff of enormous proportion. Even when these folks eat the soup they made – not a spark of reality is present. I did appreciate the fried eggs, however.
But by far the biggest disappointment is the story itself. There is no plot strong enough to drape whole cloth on. Yes people do change, but there is little at stake, here. Yes there are flare-ups and destruction, and Sister Shelley has a particularly satisfying moment at the conclusion as she tosses Emma out on her spiritual behind. But why she was allowed to stay on after a major transgression is never made clear. Ms. Schreck wants us to care about these people, that is obvious. But good intentions do not a good story guarantee.
Grand Concourse – By Heidi Schreck; directed by Kip Fagan
WITH: Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Shelley), Ismenia Mendes (Emma), Bobby Moreno (Oscar) and Lee Wilkof (Frog).
Sets by Rachel Hauck; costumes by Jessica Pabst; lighting by Matt Frey; sound by Leah Gelpe; production stage manager, Sunneva Stapleton. Presented by Playwrights Horizons, Tim Sanford, artistic director; Leslie Marcus, managing director; Carol Fishman, general manager. At the Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, Clinton, 212-279-4200, playwrightshorizons.org. Through Nov. 30. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.