By Donna Herman
“This Day Forward” by Nicky Silver at The Vineyard Theater starts out more in “I Love Lucy” sitcom land, but winds up in dysfunctional family “August: Osage County” world. Which is a place most of his work at least visits, if not lodges in firmly. And it’s directed by Mark Brokaw who is a frequent navigator of the Silver waters.
Act I of “This Day Forward” is set in 1958 and opens in a beautiful room in The St. Regis Hotel where Martin (Michael Crane) and Irene (Holley Fain) have retired after their wedding reception. The lights come up on Martin who is taking off his jacket, cufflinks and bowtie, as he breaks the 4th wall and tells us rapturously what a lovely wedding they just had. When the lights come up on the rest of the room we see Irene, fully dressed in a cocktail length, full-skirted, long-sleeved, white lace dress that screams period. She is nervously flitting around the room and clearly not on the same page as Martin. He is focused on the wedding night proceedings, and she is just as obviously focused on avoiding them and confessing something to him.
Holley Fain gives a pitch perfect performance as the ditzy but earnest, sweet, seemingly naïve, newlywed who can’t spit it out. A charming and beautiful cross between Audrey Hepburn and Lucille Ball, we can believe that Martin would fall in love with her, but have difficulty understanding his appeal to her. He says all the right things, but Michael Crane’s performance comes across as nebbishy and whiny instead of charismatic and passionate.
Nonetheless, between Mr. Silver’s witty, clever dialog and Ms. Fain’s engaging performance, the first act is mostly a keeper. I would cut out the second scene entirely, it did not move the plot along or reveal anything about the main characters. And frankly, you could do without most of the third scene too. And while you’re at it, the fight scenes need work. At the very least, a lot of rehearsal so they don’t look like the Keystone Cops (the first one), or just plain amateurish when they miss (the final one).
The second act is set almost 50 years later in 2004 and we get to see what happened to the newlyweds through their offspring, in yet another plot twist. And the mystery of Michael Crane’s casting as the young married becomes clearer, although no less misguided. In Act II he plays Noah, the gay playwright and son of Martin, his character in Act I. Who is indeed, nebbish and whiny. Still, it’s called acting. I expect that a professional actor should be able to play a person of any sexual orientation convincingly. And no, there’s nothing in the play to suggest that the character of Martin is gay.
Irene is now an old woman (June Gable) living with her daughter Sheila (Francesca Faridany), and beginning to become confused and disoriented. She is a very different person than the charming young thing we met in Act I. Bitter, mean, lonely and lashing out, she has run away from Sheila’s house in Connecticut where Sheila, her husband and their daughter live. And where Sheila watches over Irene in what Sheila describes as an “untenable” situation.
Irene was found in her pajamas and slippers at JFK Airport in the gift shop this morning, reading a Judy Blume book on the floor. The police called Noah and are now bringing her to his Manhattan loft. Noah nervously awaits the arrival of Irene, Sheila and the police while trying to read a script he’s been sent and avoid a conversation with his boyfriend Leo (Andrew Burnap). Leo is delighted to finally be meeting Noah’s family and putting out crudités over Noah’s objections. “It’s not a cocktail party!” he yells. “I know, I heard you. Everyone, everywhere, heard you,” Leo tries to tease him. We soon find out Noah and Leo’s backstory from the nervous chatter and a well-placed flash-back before the family descends. Andrew Burnap gives us a charming, charismatic Leo with a good sense of humor, who is trying very hard to please an older lover. As Noah, Michael Crane gives us, well…a nebbish, whiny, neurotic, self-obsessed playwright. Which is what Nicky Silver has written. Physician heal thyself.
And then the funny to us, nightmarish to them, family reunion begins when Sheila arrives, gold chains flashing. Clearly a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown, she proceeds to swallow several diazepam and a glass of gin, while unloading her frustrations on Noah. Trying to run her decorating business and her family, and take care of her increasingly hostile and demanding mother has clearly pushed her to the limit.
When Irene arrives and the family stories spill out along with the family animus, it’s clear there’s no love lost between her and her children. The wonder is they have anything at all do to with each other. In the end, as clever and insightful as Mr. Silver’s dialog is, and as much as he invites us to laugh at the picture he’s painting, it’s just too bleak. It’s hard to walk away with anything but the feeling that everyone up there is doomed.
“This Day Forward” by Nicky Silver, Directed by Mark Brokaw
WITH: Michael Crane (Martin/Noah); Holley Fain (Irene); Andrew Burnap (Donald/Leo); June Gable (Melka/Irene); Joe Tippett (Emil); Francesca Faridany (Mrs. Schmidt/Sheila)
Scenic design by Allen Moyer; costume design by Kaye Voyce; lighting design by David Lander; original music and sound design by David Van Tiegham; wig, hair & make-up design by Dave Bova & Jared Janas; production stage manager, Cynthia Cahill. Presented by Vineyard Theatre, General Management by DR Theatrical Management. 108 East 15th Street, tickets: (212) 353-0303 or visit www.vineyardtheatre.org through Dec. 18th.