Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Big Apple"

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note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Larry Stark

"The Big Apple"

Written and Directed
by Jack Neary

Set Design by Elizabeth Bedard, T. Stover & Andrew Duncan
Lighting Design by Alex Savitzky
Stage Manager Ann Garvin

Bob....................Justin Budinoff
Mr. Apple................Jerry Bisantz
Merideth.....................Erin Cole
Donald/Danny/Perry/Gordon...Mark Leahy
Melanie/Felicity...........Lida McGirr
Bitsy.......................Sally Nutt
Sassy/Ellyn............Eve Passeltiner
Owner.......................Jack Dacey
Carleton/Robert.............John Pease

Sunday, 19 February:
A brave new company, The Image Theater, is doing the world premier of Jack Neary's newest comedy up in Lowell --- and the word on the street is that it has legs. Word is, the producers are already looking for a house here in Boston, before it moves on south, trailing rave reviews from boths it's "try-out cities," for a long, comfortable run in NY NY. I saw the show Friday night, and I think "THE BIG APPLE" is ready for The Big Apple.
You heard it here first!

The Lowell run ended on the wide, crescent-thrust stage of the McDonough Theater last night, so I will pretend to be a theatrical maker/breaker and speak directly to the play's director about tweakings and adjustments that might improve things before it bursts on the Boston scene. The producers found the ideal director for this show --- Jack Neary, the playwright himself. A thorougly experienced professional (his play grows out of the artistic jolts he once felt taking a play to its off-Broadway production), I think he can use anything I might say That Works and ignore what doesn't.

But first, a word about the cast --- which is astonishingly good. Here a young playwright is played by Justin Budinoff with a perfect balance of eager self-doubt, and grudging compromise with what everyone who seems more authoritative demands. His pushy antagonist is a personification of New York itself called Mr. Apple. Jerry Bisantz plays him with the crisp string-of-firecrackers delivery of big-brother condescension and down-your-nose superiority which IS the New York attitude. His always-attacking delivery sounds as though Neary had him in mind writing the dialogue (even though I'm told Bisantz stepped in and learned the part only one week before opening).

The play is a hilariously honest fantasy set in the mind of a playwright, with producers, directors, actors as well as his characters themselves making slightly-exaggerated walk-ons as his script (called "Auld Lange Syne") stumbles from crisis to crisis to opening and into the jaws of the New York critical brotherhood. The playwright, and the audience, have a lot to learn!

Neary has assembled a surprisingly supple cast, half of whom duck off-stage for changes of costume and character so quick and complete that you'd swear there were ten actors where the program lists only four. The characters include two different directors, a brace of over-moneyed theater-loving producers, an officiously obnoxious casting-director, a no-nonsense techie, two actresses ridiculously mis-cast as the lead, a venal theatre-owner, and probably three or four others; you'll have to check the cast-list for details --- but I swear that every time Mark Leahy walked back on that stage I had to blink hard to realize it was the same actor.

Each one of these overly-professional experts takes an unhealthy bite out of young Bob's play --- breezily justifying their expert but bloody surgery. They are, mostly, exaggerated caricatures --- but here I'd like to disagree with the show's director, who used the talents of his cast to push these caricatures way over the edge. They are indeed funny as written --- but they each do serious harm not only to Bob's play, but to his integrity as its creator. The more Neary pushes them toward ridiculous, the less powerful their predations on the initial script feel. At least to me. I didn't feel that their predations had enough weight for their very serious effects.

The only really bright spot in the playwright's world is not a person, but the character of his heroine, who is quite willing --- eager even! --- to be played by a flaming sex-pot, but nevertheless sympathetic to the writer's very different vision. She is sympathetic, empathetic even, but she can't really help of course. She's not Real.

The story, though, felt real to me, as real as Budinoff and Bisantz could make it. And, at the center of the story as it is on the center of the stage is a chest in which the playwright keeps his integrity, and his talent --- "the well where you keep your juice" as Hemingway called it. There in Lowell this was clear only at the end of the play, when opening that chest became the real point of the action. I wish, early in that first act, his heroine had asked about that chest, wondered perhaps "Did I come out of there?" "You all came out of there," the playwright could say --- because all of them, and "The Big Apple" itself, really came out of the chest of Jack Neary's talent.

And now it's on its way here to Boston, and then into the jaws of New York itself, and on to ... well, every stage in the world where people care about theater.
And I was there first!

( a k a larry stark )

"The Big Apple" (9 - 18 February)
McDonough Theater, 40 Paige Street, LOWELL MA

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