La guerra es el infierno para “The Women of Padilla” a Two River Theater

“The Women of Padilla” is a very well-written play, a realization I came to while reading it a couple days after seeing it at Two River Theater.

If ever a play was suited for Two River’s intimate black-box Huber theater, it is “Padilla,” but Tony Meneses’ 75-minute play about eight Mexican women waiting at home while their husbands are away at war is being staged in Two River’s 350-seat main auditorium, a veritable arena by comparison.  On the page, each woman is distinctly drawn both individually and in relation to the others. In brief, often clipped exchanges (most speeches are one or two sentences), Meneses exposes the women’s close-to-the-surface emotions with clarity and urgency. On the wide stage those elements are diffused; the words are there (and the performances are fine), but there’s little tension.

While there is a Padilla municipality in Mexico (thanks, Google), the title refers not to a location, but to a shared surname, acquired by the eight women when each married one of eight Padilla brothers, all of whom are at arms in an unspecified war (“It’s just men and bloodshed; it doesn’t matter where”). The sisters-in-law are thus linked by marriage, but more so by longings for their husbands and fears for their well-being. In the course of the play they tease, bicker, gossip (best not be the absentee) and support one another.

Padilla women early in the play…

They also commiserate as the ravages of war come home to roost – literally. Well, symbolically literally, if you’ll allow a seeming contradiction. Word of battlefield casualties arrives via swooping birds that drop written-name notes and then fly away. Represented as large, stylized messenger pigeons, and manipulated smoothly, they inspire dread among the women (and some inexplicable titters from the audience).

Written by a man, the play emanates an acute sense of its women’s values, emotions and some quirky wit: “We’re out of oregano,” one says. “Here,” another pulls from her pocket. “You carry oregano with you?” “Yes, let me know if you need anything else.” There are also more than a few heart-stoppers: “…I imagined my own touch was his.”

Each woman is identified by a particular characteristic: there’s Carmen (Jeanine Serralles), the one who drinks (and gets laughs); Mari (Jacqueline Correa), who quietly leads (and who imagined that touch); Marta (Keren Lugo), the one with faith, who prays through a hole in her roof (“The bucket’s for the rain”) and Alejandra (Paloma Guzmán), the one who’s ‘expecting’ (an unnecessary euphemism – even in rural Mexico) and whose pigeon-note is shattering.

Cristina (Elizabeth Ramos), the one who’s young, is 16, as is her husband, who didn’t want to be the only bro with no one waiting at home; Fidela (Daniella De Jesús) is the one who’s taciturn (but travels with oregano); Lucha (Helen Cespedes), the one with poetry, caps the play with signs of hope. Last but not least is Blanca (Karina Arroyave), the one on the outside. She’s housework challenged (“I lack a critical eye when it comes to cleaning”), but it is to her that Mari opens up in an emotionally written and acted two-scene: “How do you do it?” Mari asks her. “The birds won’t stop. How do you do this by yourself?” “I’m miserable,” Blanca replies. “I sit here, every day, drowning in this house, drowning in my own despair.” (Cue break from reading for a sip of tea and a tissue.)

…and late in the play. In between is an emotional journey. (Photos: T. Charles Erickson)

That the production does not fulfill the play’s potential is certainly not the fault of the eight-actor ensemble (each of whom, strangely enough, projects the Padillo boys’ strikingly similar taste in women) or, for that matter, of any one individual. While director Ken Rus Schmoll shoulda/coulda tightened up the staging and brought the women closer together physically and other-ly, he’s not helped by designer Arnulfo Maldonado’s set or furnishings or props, which barely indicate in whose houses each of the ten scenes take place. (It’s clear in the text, but much of the matching dialogue is lost to a lack of vocal projection.) Rather, it is the overall conception that diminishes the play.

During my reading of “The Women of Padilla” I took a few breaks just to prolong the experience; no such impulse occurred during its opening night performance.

Through April 30 at Two River Theater, Bridge Ave., Red Bank NJ. Performances Wed. at 1PM & 7PM; Thurs at 10AM & 8PM; Fri. at 8; Sat. at 3 & 8; Sun. at 3PM. For tickets ($40-$70): or 732-345-1400

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“The Play That Goes Wrong” and “The Price” both go right.

Two-thirds of “The Play That Goes Wrong” is hilarious. The other half (apologies to Yogi Berra) is just funny. If you’ve ever appeared in a play, or produced, directed or stage-managed one, something that goes wrong in “Goes Wrong” has gone wrong for you. Just not everything, at least not all in the course of one performance.

The screw-ups during the (fictional) Cornley University Drama Society’s presentation of “The Murder at Haversham Manor” are relentless. There’s barely time to take a breath between them, which actually starts to dull one’s comic-appreciation-edge with 20 minutes or so still to come. Having noted (and dismissed) that factor, the U.K.’s (actual) Mischief Theatre production of “The Play That Goes Wrong” is a treat.

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A classic well told: “Of Mice and Men” in Holmdel, NJ

Some years ago I picked up a 1939 edition of John Gassner’s “20 Best Plays of the American Theatre” at the Cincinnati Public Library’s Buck-a-Book sale. Among the titles are some that haven’t left the printed page in decades (Winterset, Boy Meets Girl), a couple of occasionally revived artifacts (Golden Boy, Three Men on a Horse), one or two I’d never even heard of (End of Summer, The Fall of the City) and one enduring classic: future (1962) Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” adapted virtually intact from his 1936-37 novella, which has been documented as one of the ten most-frequently read books in public high schools. In the work (as well as in “The Grapes of Wrath,” of course), Steinbeck contemporaneously captured the tone of the Great Depression with an insight usually reserved for historians.

Holmdel Theatre Company is nearing the end of its limited “Of Mice and Men” run. Insightfully directed by Michael Kroll on Joyce Horan’s just-enough of a spare set, and cast exactly to type, this is as fine a “Mice and Men” staging as you’ll see anywhere – certainly in a 95-seat converted barn, set on a sprawling suburban New Jersey high school campus. But that is indeed where you can catch it. If you’re lucky.

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The heat is back on in “Miss Saigon”

“Miss Saigon” was the first play I reviewed for the Two River Times in Red Bank, NJ – or for anywhere, actually, since a stint on a Rhode Island weekly during a long-ago college summer recess. I attended the April 11, 1991 opening at the Broadway Theatre as the guest of lighting designer David Hersey, with whom I had worked in stock. (David, Tony-nominated for “Saigon,” had already won for “Evita” and for “Les Mis,” where he devised the intricate sewer-rescue effect.) My friend Claudia Ansorge had recently founded the Two River Times and agreed to run my coverage; Claudia and her publishing-partner Geraldo Rivera hired me soon after, based on that column.

The Broadway opening was bathed in controversy. “Les Mis” had moved to the Imperial, freeing up the more spacious Broadway, to accommodate the “Miss Saigon” sets, which included – then and now – a life-size helicopter landing. British actor Jonathan Pryce starred as The Engineer, a Eurasian pimp, and Asian groups were protesting the casting of the caucasian Pryce, who had created the role in London. Opening night demonstrations closed the streets for several blocks.

The heat is on in Saigon!

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A well-built “Multiple Family Dwelling” in Long Branch NJ

It’s said that there are only seven plots. If so, who’s sleeping with whose husband/wife/SO must be at least two of them. The details of such assignations are revealed late in “Multiple Family Dwelling,” but the vibes are unmistakable right from the start. James Hindman’s admirable one-act rom-dram about two millennial couples is world-premiering at New Jersey Repertory Company.

The adult fun (and not so much) starts at the end of eight-year old Olivia’s birthday party. Hosts Kelly (Maria Couch) and James (Dustin Charles) have offered Kelly’s long-time friend Tia (Dana Brooke) and her fiancé Stuart (Jared Michael Delaney) a good deal on the second floor of their intended-investment house, after evicting a rent-delinquent tenant to create the vacancy.

Happy couple: Kelly (Maria Couch) and James) Dustin Charles (Photos: SuzAnne Barabas)

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Come from wherever to see “Come From Away”

Any people who don’t believe in the Magic of Theatre would be well advised to get themselves to “Come From Away,” where a dozen diverse performers, aided by some chairs, a few coats and hats and fewer props, create three times that many characters who in turn represent many more.

The cast of “Come From Away” (Photos: Matthew Murphy)

You’re familiar with the setup: In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11/2001 attacks, U. S. air space was shut down, cancelling flights from around the world for days – a simple enough procedure, however inconveniencing. (My son and daughter-in-law were stranded in London.) But what about the flights already airborne on that Tuesday morning?  Hundreds of them were ordered to return to their departure points or find other landing facilities en route – just not in the U.S.

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