By Scott Aiello; Directed by Claire Karpen
Produced by Strangemen Theatre Company
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 12.2.18
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
by Eleanor J. Bader on 11.14.18
Forrest Malloy and Stephanie Gould in Bernie and Mikey's Trip to the Moon. Photo by Michael Kushner.
BOTTOM LINE: A highly nuanced look at the ways caring for a severely disabled family member impacts one working-class household.
When the curtain opens in Scott Aiello’s emotionally resonant Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon, Bernie (played with childlike pluck by the excellent Stephanie Gould) is sitting in a backyard sandbox moving granules from one cup to another. It’s immediately evident that she has a severe intellectual disability.
Her parents, stay-at-home caretaker Gladys (beautifully played by an always-on-the-edge-of-panic Margo Singaliese) and bar owner Mike (played with desperate intensity and biting sarcasm by Jordan Lage), are now robustly middle-aged, but they know they should be planning for Bernie’s future—and their own. Concerns nag. Would it be best for Bernie to be cared for in a group home? Or would a larger facility be a better fit? Currently, Bernie goes to a day program where she is learning how to shop, take the bus, and prepare simple meals. Gladys and Mike wonder—is this enough? What else should they be doing?
Meanwhile, Bernie’s older brother Mikey (the terrific Forrest Malloy), has essentially been left out of the decision-making process, something he finds insulting and irksome. After all, he’s been Bernie’s best friend and protector for twenty-odd years and sees absolutely no reason why this arrangement should not continue forever. That said, he’s also aware that his love for his sister is the source of stress: will he ever be able to forge a life of his own, find love, and maybe even move away and attend college? Or does his desire to be a responsible brother foreclose these possibilities? These dilemmas form the crux of Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon, an intense and often hilarious family drama. Zingers fly as the scene shifts between the family’s home and Mike’s bar, and James Ortiz’s masterful set design allows for easy transitions.
As household members bicker about everyday concerns and debate Bernie’s future, it becomes increasingly clear that Bernie, like Mikey, has been excluded from the conversation, as if it never occurred to anyone to ask her what she might want. Her invisibility comes to a head when she hooks up—perhaps literally, perhaps not—with Jeff Goldblum (Benjamin Rosloff), a would-be suitor she met at the Happy Helpers training center. This desired liaison causes Bernie to challenge numerous preconceptions about her limitations and pushes the audience, as well as the family, to come to terms with Bernie’s agency, disability be damned.
Ancillary characters Ski (veteran actor Stephen D’Ambrose), Mike’s longtime co-worker and a grandfather stand-in to Bernie and Mikey, and Laura (Ismenia Mendes), Mikey’s disinterested but longed-for love interest, give the play added dimension.
Perfectly staged and emotionally complex, the story, however familiar, rings true. Sam Husnetz’s sound design essentially turns Elvis into one of the play’s characters and seamlessly allows The King’s timeless music to invoke Bernie’s lack of grounding in a particular era. What’s more, the story's framing makes it easy to empathize with each character’s exhaustion, terror, and frustration. At the same time, no one—not Bernie, not Mikey, not their parents, not audience members—can escape what is. While moon-travel fantasies might provide temporary respite, Aiello reminds us that we earthlings are likely to remain in the here-and-now for the foreseeable future.
(Bernie and Mikey's Trip to the Moon plays at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, through December 2, 2018. The running time is 2 hours with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:15; Saturdays at 2:15 and 7:15; and Sundays at 2:15. No performance 11/22; additional performance 11/20 at 2:15. Tickets are $35 and are available by calling TicketCentral at 212-229-4200, or at 59e59.org.)
Bernie and Mikey's Trip to the Moon is by Scott Aiello. Directed by Claire Karpen. Set Design by James Ortiz. Lighting Design by Cecilia Durbin. Sound Design by Sam Kusnetz. Costume Design by Izzy Fields. Props Manager is Toria Sterling. Assistant Lighting Designer is Kathrine R. Mitchell. Production Stage Manager is Kristen M. Herrick. Assistant Stage Manager is Helen Irene Muller. Production Assistant is Emma Ettinger.
The cast is Stephen D'Ambrose, Stephanie Gould, Jordan Lage, Forrest Malloy, Ismenia Mendes, Benjamin Rosloff, and Margo Singaliese.