By Stanford Friedman
Absence makes the heart grow colder, and being together isn’t all that great either, in This Space Between Us, the new friends and family at bay dramedy presented by Keen Company. Despite an opening scene set in the stands of a horse race, and an ending that finds the protagonist running off to Nairobi, the production is disappointingly flat footed. This is due, in part, to the fact that each of the play’s six characters makes choices that are unlikable, or just plain unlikely. And, in part, to the fact that playwright Peter Gil-Sheridan sacrifices a deep dive in favor of touching on a panoply of social issues. Gun ownership, animal cruelty, HIV, Catholicism, racism, feminism and veganism are all discussed, but end up as stumbling blocks in telling the story of how a young man’s broken past and unhappy present leads him to an uncertain future.
Jamie (Ryan Garbayo) is a 34-year-old corporate lawyer who has decided to ditch his high paying job in favor of working for a legal aid organization that provides support to the East African country of Eritrea. His live-in boyfriend, Ted (Tommy Heleringer), would be happiest if the two just stayed on their couch watching Rachel Maddow and calling each other by their shared pet name, “Doodle.” Jamie’s father, Frank (Anthony Ruiz) who is not thrilled with Ted to begin with, is even less thrilled at the thought of his son’s career change. Jamie’s mother, Debbie (Joyce Cohen), is also worried but seemingly more frustrated that her own sister, Pat (Glynis Bell), a Catholic nun, is winning their sibling rivalry over who can show the most concern. And then there is Gillian (Alex Chester), an irritating magazine executive with anger management issues who is Jamie’s best friend in all the wrong ways. When she reminds Jamie that their Halloween plan is to dress as Sonny and Cher, Ted tries to hold ground, countering, “I thought we were doing Bert and Ernie!”
Keen Company artistic director Jonathan Silverstein leads his cast through the play’s six scenes and numerous socio-political spats with some nice theatrical touches. Time freezes up for Jamie on occasion, giving him surreal moments of observing the situation he is in and pushing him toward an exit. And Gil-Sheridan constructs some pleasing parallels. Frank’s watch, a symbol of his working class struggle, competes for space on Jamie’s wrist with Ted’s romantic gift of a Cartier. When Ted lands in the hospital, Jamie accidently kicks out a plug on one of the bed’s monitoring devices leading to a manic bit of physical comedy. Later, when Frank and Debbie pay a visit to Jamie’s apartment, Frank plugs in a self-inflating air mattress and father and son stand in a long, stone cold silence as the bed does its thing.
But the cast find themselves unable to breathe life into their tricky roles. Garbayo’s Jamie is so blasé, it is hard to imagine him taking up a noble cause, nor does his naivete at what he’s in for ring true. Heleringer struggles to find the right campy to sincere ratio for Ted, leaving him clingy and predictable. Frank is nicely embodied by Ruiz up until some gun business strains credulity. Cohen is all flailing arms as Debbie and while Bell provides a much-needed voice of reason as Pat, the two do not convincingly make sense of their sisterly love-hate relationship. Chester, meanwhile, plucks all the harsh strings of Gillian without finding any sympathetic note. As a result, this space between us, the audience, and them, the actors, proves barely bridgeable.
This Space Between Us – By Peter Gil-Sheridan, directed by Jonathan Silverstein.
WITH: Glynis Bell (Sister Pat), Alex Chester ( Gillian), Joyce Cohen (Debbie), Ryan Garbayo (Jamie), Tommy Heleringer (Ted), and Anthony Ruiz (Frank).
Scenic design by Steven Kemp, costumes by Rodrigo Muñoz, lighting by Daisy Long, sound by Luqman Brown, props by Addison Heeren. Keen Company at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd St.,
https://www.keencompany.org/, 212-714-2442. Through April 2. Running time: 100 minutes.