By Donna Herman
Bekah Brunstetter’s new play Public Servant, is the second in a trilogy that began with The Cake. Both Ed Sink (Chris Henry Coffey), newly elected County Commissioner, and his daughter Hannah (Anna Lentz) don’t question that Ed is one of the good guys. Miriam (Christine Bruno), a disillusioned New Yorker is in town to sell her late mother’s house and she needs Ed’s help. But politics is a three-ringed circus and Ed learns he’s no P.T. Barnum. Theater Breaking Through Barriers is kicking off its 40th Anniversary season by presenting the World Premiere of Public Servant through June 29th at Theatre Row’s Clurman Theatre.
Brunstetter likes to deal with big meaty topics on a very personal and intimate level. In The Cake she used the real-life story of the baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple and turned it on its head. She made the baker a woman and the gay couple a pair of lesbians, one of whom was her goddaughter. And she made her characters really take some time to figure out how they felt. She did it with heart and humor and respect for everyone involved. And the realities of loving relationships.
In Public Servant she throws Ed, Hannah and Miriam together at critical moments in their lives, which forces all of them to look outside themselves and their own concerns and grow. But the play winds up without a strong single central core. It becomes about the intermingled relationships between the three of them and the personal growth of all three of them and their relationships. There is a lot of heart, there is a lot of truth, but I missed some humor which was only sparsely in evidence here where it was a recognizable ingredient in The Cake. After reading Ms. Brunstetter’s blog I suspect that since her inspiration for writing this play was partly her father, himself a County Commissioner whom she adores, she may have pulled a few punches when writing the script.
However, one of the things she absolutely aced was the character of Miriam whom she endowed with Cerebral Palsy. But while Ms. Brunstetter endowed the character with this condition, she barely made it an issue in the play. It didn’t stop Miriam from doing anything or going anywhere. It wasn’t the cause of her biggest problems. It was an inconvenience to be dealt with. Which is how Christine Bruno, the actress who played the part, seemed to handle her own disability. I do not know what condition Ms. Bruno has or had; it is not mentioned in her bio. What is mentioned is her unceasing work as an advocate for actors with disabilities. What was evident were skills an actor. Portraying a woman in crisis, Ms. Bruno was incredibly emotionally available, pain lancing across her features, a brief strangled cry uttered against her will and then quickly bottled up again. You could not help but feel for her – not because of her disability, but because of her emotional state. Now that’s acting.
Kudos also has to go to scenic designer Edward T. Morris for one of the most elegant and effective sets I’ve seen. A big V of white picket fencing about waist high with a set of stairs in the small of the V which was centered upstage. There was a series of gates in the fence which swung out and back to reveal and conceal a desk and console for Ed’s office, or a kitchen island for his apartment, or Miriam’s mother’s garden. It was perfectly complemented by Alejandro Fajardo’s lighting which rendered everything behind the fence in total blackness, allowing actors and stagehands to move around without being seen, as well as disguising any set pieces attached behind the fence waiting to be swung into action.
I’m a fan of Bekah Brunstetter’s. I’ll go see whatever she writes. She’s a striver who thinks and deals with the stuff of life. She may not hit it out of the park every time she’s up at bat, but she always swings for the fences and never gets less than a double! Hey, look at me with the baseball metaphors!
Public Servant By Bekah Brunstetter, Directed by Geordie Broadwater
WITH: Christine Bruno (Miriam); Chris Henry Coffey (Ed); Hannah (Anna Lentz)
Scenic Design by Edward T. Morris; Costume Design by Courtney E. Butt; Lighting Design by Alejandro Fajardo; Sound Design by Sam Crawford; Props Design by Roni Sipp; Production Stage Manager, Michal V. Mendelsohn; Assistant Stage Manager, Emily Paige Ballou; Production Manager, Jeremy Ping; General Manager, Steve Asher; Casting, TBD Casting; Advertising/Marketing by Hysell Marketing; Press Representative, Spin Cycle, Ron Lasko. Presented by Theater Breaking Through Barriers, Nicholas Viselli Producing Artistic Director. Performances through June 29th Tuesday through Sunday at Theatre Row’s Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd St., NYC. For tickets call 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.