One of the unexpected pleasures of covering New York theatre for our site is that I have the opportunity to view the wide spectrum of subjects, themes, current issues that playwrights use as source material. In the recent weeks they have dealt with Judeo-Christian-Islamic conflicts (Disgraced) , the search for truth in affairs of the heart (The Real Thing), the insertion of Buddhism into the life of a western family (The Oldest Boy), the secret feelings of transvestites who are heterosexual (Casa Valentina), the old world ways of people steeped in their traditions, often keeping progress at bay (The Last Ship), and now we come to Robert Callely’s new play, dealing with the explosions within a seemingly average American family when a long held secret is suddenly revealed, causing a re-evaluation of all the values conditioned into the hearts and minds of a husband, his daughter, two sons and the woman, his wife, who mothered them as though they were her own.
The stool referred to in the title is the one on which Chris McCullough sat the night eight years earlier when she met Tony DeMarco, who courted and married her. Their life together has been loving and warm until Chris’ brother Michael appears one day, having finally located his long lost sister, to tell her that their father has died.
He also brings with him a story about a choice she made long ago that has kept them apart for the past ten years. This information is all fed to us smoothly and it engages us with its surprising revelations. As performed by Antoinette Thornes and Timothy John Smith as man and wife, by John Stanisci as the visitor with the news, and by Luke Slattery, Zachary Brod and Sara Kapner as the three children, it builds throughout the first of two acts.
By intermission, we are involved. We have come to know and respond to these characters, and we’ve learned a lot about yet another form of American family that’s a far cry from that of Father, who always Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet and their two charming sons, the adorable Huxtables and even from the more complicated family that included Archie and Edith Bunker. It’s very much a contemporary tale, and elements of its parts are appearing more and more in the current plays, movies and stories that would never have come to light even five years ago.
Once we’ve been fed all we need to know about this family and the people who inhabit it, we naturally enough hope to learn what’s to be done about their situation. Much of the second act of the play wanders hither and yon, and takes us to a beautifully played (by Robert Hogas as a frighteningly unaware priest and Mr. Smith as the confused and frightened husband and father) but overly long scene that is repetitive.
A scene with a psychiatrist, again beautifully played by Ms. Thornes and Liza Vann as the Doctor, does not probe more deeply than the others; it tells us what we already know. This is one play that would have benefited from a contraction into one act, or if extended, into further exploration into the conflicting attitudes of its participants. The actors were up to playing it, but Mr. Callely didn’t supply them with the words.
We have a near-miss with a provocative theme, a quartet of interesting characters (the others are there just to present arguments, and the children are simply that – they are each one dimensional). But as I said in my opening statement, by covering most of what’s being offered on and off Broadway, even the musicals, I am being kept aware of what is on the minds of our current chroniclers, and I’m being exposed to viewpoints other than my own, often outside my limited, but expanding, comfort zone.
On a Stool at the End of the Bar is onstage through December 14, 2014 at 59E59 theatres, 59 East 59th Street, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.