By Lucas Kavner; Directed by Stephen Brackett
Produced by Lesser America
Off Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 6.28.14
TBG Theatre, 312 W 36th Street
by Adrienne Urbanski on 6.14.14
Jake Choi and Laura Ramadei in Carnival Kids. Photo by Danny Ghitis.
BOTTOM LINE: This drama, focusing on one man's struggle to start a new life and repair his relationship with his son, is thoroughly engrossing due to a captivating script and strong acting performances.
With the recent economic recession, the plot lines in both theater and television have used the timely situation of grown children returning to their parents’ nest as a plot device for confronting the familial demons of the past. Carnival Kids takes a somewhat new spin on this situation, showing a father that is left with so few options that he chooses to move in with his son and sleep on the couch while attempting to piece his life back together.
Dale (Randall Newsome) is a swaggering Texan, who like his idol Jonny Cash, dons all black clothes and a cowboy hat. Having spent most of his life playing for a somewhat successful band that never quite led to wealth, he has few options in terms of profitable employment. His adopted son Mark (Jake Choi), who is of Asian descent, could not be more unlike him: Mark is tense and obsessed with following the rules and the right career path. He is flabbergasted that Dale has come to New York City completely unprepared for job hunting. “He didn’t even bring khakis,” Mark complains to his friend and would-be love interest Marisa (Laura Ramadei). Growing up as the adopted son of a philandering, alcoholic musician, whose unpredictability, both emotionally and professionally, left the family unstable, Mark has become afraid of chances and the unknown, trying to give himself the stability he never had as a child.
Mark’s snarky and snide roommate Eckland (Max Jenkins), who just made a fortune off of a gambling app (why he chooses to still live with a roommate is a mystery), stays at home all day meddling with his music equipment. Inspired by his own get-rich-quick scheme, Eckland advises Dale to utilize an illegal app called The Greenway to find a woman interested in paying him $10,000 in exchange for marrying her and getting her her green card. A Syrian woman named Kalina (Danelle Eliav) is charmed by Dale’s Texan accent and cowboy hat and agrees to pay him to marry her. The two seem to have a chemistry that extends beyond a business arrangement, although Kalina may not exactly be who she seems to be.
Among the most compelling of the play’s story lines is that of Mark and Marisa (Laura Ramadei), former high school classmates who have reunited. Marisa admits to a long-standing crush on Mark, and he in turn admits to an interest in her. Brass and sarcastic, Marisa is upfront in a way Mark cannot be, and she calls him on his closed off, tightly wound behavior, pushing the issue of their mutual attraction. While he appears to be interested in dating Marissa, Mark also seems to be completely unfamiliar with any of the social protocols in regards to dating and awkwardly tries to launch a sexual relationship with Marisa only to prove himself to be incapable of intimacy. During a heated, emotionally cathartic confrontation with Dale, Mark attributes this inability to connect with others to twice walking in on his father having sex with other women while still married to his mother.
While Carnival Kids, both in terms of script and performance, does have its minor flaws that could be improved upon, it is undoubtedly a great show. Its blend of witty dialogue and authentic-feeling drama makes it a thoroughly engrossing work from beginning to end with the type of snappy dialogue and action-rich scenes that entice those who do not normally enjoy theater. Actors Mark Jenkins and Laura Ramadei (with the guidance of director Stephen Brackett) maximize the comedic effect of their lines, adding much humor to the play, which offsets the moments of intense drama well. Sound designer Janie Bullar’s sound effects add much to the minimal set as the sounds easily evoke such settings as a bar and a laundromat. Admirably, Kavner does not try to resolve all of his character’s conflicts, nor do any of the potential romantic connections lead to an assurance of lasting happiness. Rather, each character shows only a potential to continue to exist and survive even in the face of uncertainty and flawed connections with others.
(Carnival Kids plays at TBG Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, 3rd floor, through June 28th. Remaining performances are Thursdays through Sundays at 8 PM. Tickets are $18 and are available at smarttix.com or by calling 212.868.4444.)