Best Bets

Cherry Smoke

Written by James McManus; Directed by Tamilla Woodard

Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 5.18.14
Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street


by Shoshana Roberts on 5.2.14

Cherry SmokeMolly Carden and Varyu O'Donnell in Cherry Smoke. Photo by Michael Blase.


BOTTOM LINE: An emotional and impressive immersion into a world of poverty, immeasurable love, and fighting.

Even when machines in a factory are functioning up to standard they have obnoxious squeaks, unpleasant odors, or extraneous shaking. The product being made is still up to par despite these occurrences due to their margin of error. Each item is allowed a percentage of difference, which causes odd events every so often, like a teddy bear with its eyes a bit too far apart. Cherry Smoke serves as the perfect sample. It is the optimal result. This machine is producing a product I loved with the script serving as the conveyor belt keeping the system on track while actors are the gears moving it along. Most important is the director, or the power cable. Every part is necessary and contributing to the well oiled machine I had the pleasure of watching.

Taking place in a run down steel mill town in Western Pennsylvania, Cherry Smoke gives a glimpse into poverty through four young adults striving for the American Dream. Cherry (Molly Carden), is a girl who dealt with abuse and tragedy at a young age. Homeless and not attending school she encounters a boy called Fish (Vayu O'Donnell) who she is drawn to instantaneously. Unfortunately he has issues of his own, including an addiction to fighting. His younger brother Duffy (Patrick Carroll) stops his bleeding between boxing rounds, but Fish can't seem to keep the punches in the ring, causing him to consistently find himself behind bars. Bug (Julie Jesneck) is the final character to make up the fantastic foursome. Despite her constant worry of looking like a boy, she manages to secure a future with Duffy.

This play breaks the fourth wall so each of the four individuals can give the audience insight into their emotions. We follow their struggles to rise above the lives their neglectful parents forced them into as scenes jump back and forth between present day and the characters' childhoods. James McManus' script offers such attention to detail, even including hilarious explanations for their strange names.

My reluctance to share too many details stems from the magic of this tragic love story. The voraciousness with which Carden looks at O'Donnell has the machine running double time. Scene after scene I recall talk of angels, masturbation, motherhood, hope, and the heat of blood. I have been racking my brain tirelessly, but I have come to the indisputable conclusion there is nothing I would have changed about this production of Cherry Smoke. Perhaps I am biased due to my adoration of fighting, love, and Pittsburgh. All three are subjects that I favor when I am living my own life. The themes present here can easily be compared to the movie Rocky, especially with its recent appearance on Broadway in musical form, but Cherry Smoke smokes the competition, in my opinion.

(Cherry Smoke plays at Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street, through May 18, 2014. Performances are Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 7PM; Saturdays at 2PM and 7PM; and Sundays at 2PM. Tickets are $25 (Students/Seniors/Union Members: $23) and are available at or by calling 212.868.4444.)