New Play Induced Car Sickness

riverdale.jpgIf you've ever been stuck in a car for a long ride with relatives with whom you have, at best, a love-hate relationship, you could sympathize with the plight of the characters in Anastasia Traina's new play From Riverdale to Riverhead, at Studio Dante. Unfortunately, the experience of sitting through the play is not unlike such a road trip, with bursts of giddiness and warm feelings punctuating stretches of sullenness, frustration, and irritation, as well as an undeniable sense of relief when it's over. Despite some good efforts on the actors' parts, the characters are tough to like, and without a sympathetic point of view through which to enter their world, any comedy and drama in the story are hard to pick up on.

The centerpiece of the simple set by Victoria Imperioli – the co-artistic director of Studio Dante – is a fat, blocky car, and at its wheel when the lights go up is the leading light of the play, the merciless Stella (Sharon Angela), honking her horn as her niece Rosie (Bess Rous) paces slowly outside, both of them waiting for Stella's sister/Rosie's mother Louise to emerge. Mousy and soft-spoken – especially compared with the brassy, no-holds-barred Stella – Rosie seems intended as the conscience of the play. She's certainly the thinker, rather too much so; even for a know-it-all, her frequently longwinded, self-consciously literary lines too often sound implausible. With Louise (Angelica Torn), meanwhile, we find soon after she races onstage and settles with an aggrieved sigh into the car that Traina has given her the weakest, most unpleasant traits from the other two –Stella's bitchiness and Rosie's hypersensitivity – and mixed them into an unfortunate cocktail that Torn's performance does nothing to ameliorate. She turns up the volume of Louise's drama queen-ness much further than is healthy for anyone, particularly when everything about her is clichéd. She doesn't need to be likable, necessarily, but it shouldn't be so uncomfortable to watch her. The final addition to this volatile gathering is another sister, Fannie (Catherine Curtin), who is almost aggressively ignorant. Though she generally tries to help Rosie keep the peace, Fannie’s screeching voice grates on the nerves like Louise and she takes a brute approach, even when calming the others, that is more like Stella.

There is an actual object to the trip -- they are going to visit Louise's son, who has recently been sent to prison in upstate New York – but he rates only a few mentions. The women's dead mother ends up being more important, as it turns out, because the play is really just about the journey, literal and figurative, rather than what they will do when they get there, and the real action is supposed to be, one realizes, in the ongoing banter that reveals their troubled family history bit by bit and, as more of it bubbles up, changes the characters' perceptions of each other. This would be all well and good and potentially moving, but since, as noted, none of the characters manages to come off as very sympathetic, it's hard to get emotionally invested in how they develop. There's also little sense of where things are headed; though Traina does a good job of slowly unveiling important facts about each woman, it's not clear what they're going to amount to or that we should be expecting something momentous in the end, making it start to drag quickly. Again, if the point was to make the audience feel it's on a car trip with these women, mission accomplished – but why would anyone do that to an audience? It feels like being the guest of a family you don't know well, learning some of their secrets despite yourself, and then, as things go downhill – here, with Louise growing progressively batty, especially after they don't get to the prison in time for visiting hours – you just want to sneak away before something bad happens.

When that inevitably over-the-top denouement does come, the heavy-handedness is softened only by Bess Rous's deeply felt performance, but even that can't make the final turn of events, which I won't spoil, seem less like it is coming out of nowhere to baffle the audience so much that it's hard to share in Rosie's anguish. From Riverdale to Riverhead takes us from being slightly irritated at the precocious Rosie to feeling sorry for her, but we needed some of that sympathy to help us through before. As it is, we get some sordid details about just one more dysfunctional family, but even when there's humor, in Stella's words or some brief, cute collective memory, we're mostly just exasperating and wondering 'Are we there yet?' rather than sinking into the women's presence and enjoying the genuine moments that do come through here and there with the characters. A couple of times in the play, the characters have to push the car from where it has stuck in ice during the fierce late spring blizzard that blows in. Though the actors occasionally make the women come alive despite their clichés, the show itself never gets the oomph it needs to take off. - Mallory Jensen

From Riverdale to Riverhead has closed.

mallory.jpgMs. Jensen is a writer in New York who works in book publishing when she is not attending an indie play/film/concert.