By Brittany Crowell

Catch as Catch Can is a colloquial phrase meaning “working with what you’ve been given,” which, in this play, could mean your genes, mental health, family, current romantic situation, or lack thereof.  After Page 73’s recent world premiere production by Mia Chung, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, I left the theater with a mild sense of all of the above, but no clear knowledge of what the piece was truly about.

The play begins with two men, each playing an older woman, talking about their distaste of the Asian women their sons have been associating with. The way that these women speak about their sons’ ex and future wives is uncomfortable and sets the piece up to be a generational exploration of racism. However, while Act 1 continues to take us down this path, at the end of the act, the play turns.  The audience learns about a mental health issue in one of the characters, and the play drops all discussion of race, all comedy, and takes us down an emotional and confusing rabbit hole.

The sudden behavioral shift at the end of the act was surprising to me, and not in a positive way. It spiked my initial sympathy and curiosity, but rather than being followed by a nuanced exploration of this person, their past, or mental illness and its effect on their family and friends, it dropped the established family drama for a more confusing and less developed journey down psychiatric wards and their effect on the patient and those around them.

Catch As Catch Can is multiple plays in one.  The first act is a play exploring the notions of family, love, and how our responsibility to each shifts from generation to generation.  I was interested in this play, but then it was lost to the second act, which seemed an entirely different play about mental illness.  I similarly would have watched a piece with this issue as its main focus, however, within the frame of this larger piece, that “play” felt incomplete and underdeveloped.  I wasn’t able to be on the emotional journey with the characters (although actors Jeff Biehl, Michael Esper, and Jeanine Serralles all gave superb performances). The play’s shift came out of the blue and went nowhere.  Perhaps Chung was attempting to mirror the shock of discovering mental illness in a loved one trough this narrative jump, but she did not then invite the audience in or bring them along for the journey.

Michael Esper in ‘Catch As Catch Can;’ photo by Hunter Canning

The piece enlisted only three actors to perform the play’s six characters.  Each actor enacted both a character of about their age and gender-identity, as well as that character’s parent of the opposite gender identification.  While the actors employed physical and vocal changes to show the shift between characters, these lines became blurred and there were a few moments where a parent’s accent or jaunt was used by their child in a scene, confusing the distinction.  Rather than revealing an influence or similarity between parent and child, this shared personification made the story hard to follow.  In order to gain more understanding from the double-casting, I wish the team employed an additional notion, prop, or costume, to help the audience follow the transformation back and forth and be better able to draw the connecting lines between the two, rather than blurring them together in confusing and unproductive ways.

After the just over two hour performance, I left the theater wondering: what is the play exploring? Is it about family and the pieces of our parents that we hold within us? Is it about a break from the previous generation’s notions of marriage and family, with the new generation catching as catch can and forming relationships, having children, making family out of the limited resources provided? Is it about mental illness, as the characters become more and more frenetic during the second act?  My answer is, it is about a little bit of all of these things, and in being so, also a bit of a mess.

CATCH AS CATCH CAN – Written by Mia Chung; Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll

WITH: Jeff Biehl (Roberta/Robbie); Michael Esper (Theresa/Tim); Jeannine Serralles (Lon/Daniela)

Sets and costumes by Arnulfo Maldonado; lighting by Jiyoun Chang; sound by Brendan Aanes; props by Samantha Shoffner; production stage manager, Megan Schwarz Dickert; assistant stage manager, Kara Procell; production manager, Sean Gorski; casting by Taylor Williams. Presented by Page 73, Michael Walkup, artistic director; Amanda Feldman, managing director; Rebecca Yaggy, director of development; Ashley Chang, artistic associate; Chloe Knight, management and development associate; Melanie Hopkins, business manager.  At the New Ohio Theater (154 Christopher St); 718-398-2099;  Through November 17.