By Kate Benson; Directed by Lee Sunday Evans
Presented by New Georges in association with Women's Project Theater
Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 2.7.14
New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street
by Sarah Moore on 1.15.15
A scene from A Beautiful Day...
BOTTOM LINE: Lee Sunday Evans’ imaginative production of Kate Benson’s reinvented family dinner tale is a great theatrical experience, and also a really good play.
Imagine a play about a family Thanksgiving dinner, but imagine it without the table, chairs, or the food. That’s the setup used in Lee Sunday Evans’ production of Kate Benson’s A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes.
Imagine a Thanksgiving dinner set on a basketball court, the wooden floor taped with colored lines, and two sports announcers sitting above, commentating on the evening at “Wembly kitchen.” A family dinner without a family table is so refreshing, given how many plays we see in any given year set around a family table. (The fantastic, deceptively simplistic set is by Sara C. Walsh.)
The family is represented by four generations, but first we meet the three sisters, Cheesecake (Brooke Ishibashi), Cherry Pie (Heather Alicia Simms), and Trifle (Nina Hellman), as they try to set up the table for dinner (without an actual table.) The dinner is at Cheesecake’s house, and Ishibashi does an excellent job at portraying the stress and tension of hosting a family event.
The actors move around the set like a dance. It looks natural, rather than choreographed, which shows the strength of Evans’ direction. The movement is complex, but they make it look easy. As the daughters set up the plates for the meal, they get thrown a curveball, with the last minute RSVP of Cherry Pie’s loose cannon daughter Gumbo (Kristine Haruna Lee), forcing them to lengthen the table.
There’s one like Gumbo in every family: recently divorced, constantly dropping things. The extended family includes GrandDada (Gerry Bamman) and SnapDragon (Mia Katigbak) as the great grandparents. SnapDragon hovers over Cheesecake, judging how well she can handle the cooking on her own. She will never be able to live up to SnapDragon’s legacy. Katigbak’s subtle, hilarious, performance is a highlight of the evening.
Jessica Almasy plays multiple roles as Smilesinger, The Twins, Wives of the Twins, Republican’s Wife, and Trainer, and Christian Felix plays opposite her as Fred, Ed, and Ned (the husbands of the sisters), Smilesinger’s Husband, The Twins, Wives of the Twins, Runnerman, Republican, and Trainer’s Partner. The children bring with them unseen hoards of their own children, who are sent to the guest bedroom.
Not only is the premise fresh, the script is genuinely funny. The running commentary is done to great effect by Ben Williams and Hubert Point-DuJour, who bicker as longtime colleagues do, while explaining the actions of the family and giving adding family backstory.
The cast is solid as an ensemble, with each actor contributing a great performance. They work very smoothly together, executing a very physically complicated play.
The ending, however, feels jarring, and almost seems as if it was inserted from another play. I admire Benson’s desire to not tie the plot up in a bow, but the darkness of the ending did not work for me.
This is Benson’s first full production, and I will certainly be on the lookout for more of her work in the future. She is a bright, brave, and funny playwright with her own distinctive voice. This Great Lakes is a singularly unique theatrical experience.
(A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes plays at New York City Center, Stage II, 131 West 55th Street, through February 7, 2015. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30PM; Saturdays at 2:30PM and 7:30 PM; and Sundays at 2:30PM. Tickets are $35 and are available at nycitycenter.org. )