Love And Loss In “The Last 5 Years”

At the end of The Last 5 Years, which is currently being staged by the Maplewood Playhouse, the play’s central couple breaks up. This, though, is no  spoiler; because they also do it at the play’s beginning!

The feat is made possible by the show’s unique structure. We are first introduced to female partner Cathy (Neena Caperna) after the demise of her and Jamie’s marriage. In the next song, male lead Jamie (Pierre Tannous) is expressing his awe at Cathy’s Shiksa Goddess good looks on their first date. Then, for the rest of the show, Cathy’s story continues in reverse while Jamie’s continues linearly.

This innovative musical came about as an early project of prominent composer Jason Robert Brown. Supposedly, it was also a highly autobiographical one; the parallels were in fact so great that Brown’s real-life ex-wife sued her former husband  in order to compel him to change some of the most personal material.

The deep love that writer Jamie and actress Cathy share for one another is evident throughout this counterpoint journey. Yet the plot follows (or retraces) the way in which their initially passionate romance gradually sours as the couple faces career failures, external temptation, outsize egos, and plain old emotional incompatibility.

This storytelling approach infuses the whole play with an aura of tragedy, and it’s also a thematically resonant one. The growing disconnection between the partners is highlighted by the fact that they spend the whole play in different places, both literally and figuratively. On the con-side, the back-and-forth structure can be a little disorienting for audience members who are not familiar with the soundtrack or the show’s concept beforehand.

The fact that The Last 5 Years is entirely sung through also somewhat limits the protagonists’ character development, as does the fact that we never get to see this couple actually function as a couple. Besides a few cute moments where the other actor serves more as prop than scene partner, the only time the two characters actually interact in front of us is when they meet in the middle of the show’s timeline: at their ill-advised wedding. 

The Last Five Years enjoyed a short off-Broadway run in 2002 and has had a few significant revivals. It’s also become a bit of a cult hit among theatre geeks, a frequent source of audition songs, and a popular choice for regional theaters due to its minimal set and cast requirements.

However, The Last 5 Years is deceptively difficult to stage effectively, and probably even more difficult to perform! As lovely as the show’s songs are and as vocally talented were the performers who belted them out, there’s still only so long that characters can do little more than sing solos before one’s attention starts to wane. 

Though I still found myself zoning out occasionally, director Kim Enright did her best to correct for this potential pothole by evoking dynamic and highly physical performances from her actors, who may have had an even harder job. Besides the vocal challenges posed by Brown’s formidable score, the time gaps between each of the shows songs means that even forward-moving Jamie has to convey radically different emotions within the span of a few minutes while Caperna had the even greater challenge of going through an entire character arc backwards.

Luckily, the two were pretty much up to the task. Both actors vocals’ were more-or-less solid throughout the demanding material, and their acting chops were on full display.  Standout moments included the complex mixture of guilt and despair portrayed by Tannous in striking ballad Nobody Needs To Know and Caperna’s frenzied delivery of rapid-fire comedic number Climbing Uphill.

Finally, one memorable moment where the show’s unusual structure paid off big-time is its ending, which juxtaposes Cathy’s radiant and optimistic Goodbye Until Tommorow with Jamie’s sorrowful I Could Never Rescue You. The sting of love lost is made all the bitterer when combined with a depiction of how extraordinary that love once was.

If you do happen to find yourself on the way to catch this inspired production, which unfortunately plays for only three more performances, be prepared for a pretty painful ride. Though there is plenty of humor in the show and it is possible to see hope in the fleeting bond between these two characters, I found a whole lot more heartbreak.

Theatre Meets Stand-Up In “My Son The Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy”

My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy, a one-man show performed and written by talented actor and comedian Brad Zimmerman, is described in its program as, “part stand-up, part theatre.” However, while the evening certainly featured more highs than lows, this viewer found herself wishing it had included a little more of the latter – and a little more originality in the former.

Not that the show disappoints on the stand-up front: despite its tongue-in-cheek “tragedy” designation, far more of the 80-minute evening is devoted to jokes than to pathos. It was a rare punchline that didn’t produce chortles, and Zimmerman’s struggles to establish himself as a performer and to please his overbearing Jewish mother have universal appeal.

Especially as a fellow aspiring artist currently stuck with a somewhat unsatisfying day job (As suggested by the play’s title, Zimmerman previously spent a full 29 years as a waiter – and, as he points out, not even a fancy-restaurant waiter!) and who’s had to suffer not only a Jewish mother but two Jewish grandmothers, I found a lot of Zimmerman’s material refreshingly relatable. In particular, he does a fine job of poking fun at his family’s amusing flaws while still showing his respect and affection for them, which is particularly touching when he pays tribute to his late father.

However, some of his material was a little on the schticky side and veered towards the familiar and out-of-date. While jokes focusing on the banality of the restaurant business and the difficulty of living up to parental standards are timeless if not exactly iconoclastic, why bother, these days, with digs at Madonna?

Some of Zimmerman’s more original jokes involved his status as a successful but not big-name comedian, which means that to make ends meet he’s had to perform at some less than-ideal venues, like Indian casinos and retirement homes.

Yet being a successful but not big-name comedian has its comedy pitfalls. A big name can get away with a good deal of self-abasement partly because we know she or he is rich and famous; if we hear the same complaints from someone who we think may be genuinely struggling to make ends meet, it can be a little uncomfortable.

So, there’s a fine line between being amusingly self-deprecating and appearing so unfortunate that you risk invoking pity. Regrettably, I felt that Zimmerman occasionally strayed a tad too far towards the latter.

Perhaps Zimmerman would do well to emphasize the fact that his show enjoyed an acclaimed fifteen month off-Broadway run and is on its second tour of the country rather than relying on conspicuous name-dropping of some of the more celebrated comedians he opened for: Joan Rivers, George Carlin, Billy Crystal.

Additionally, the mostly-good stand-up notwithstanding, I’m not sure that Zimmerman took full advantage of the opportunity to make his show something other than stand-up. The comedian’s capacity as an actor and tendency towards theatricality is clearly visible when he briefly recreates his performance from a decades past college production, Scottish accent and all, as well as in sequences in which he imitates family members.

Whether his show offered the truly satisfying narrative one might hope for in an evening of theatre is another question. I wish Zimmerman had the guts to delve into the actual tragedy of having more or less wasted a good deal of his life rather than skimming the surface and moving on to the next punchline.

Maybe, though, My Son The Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy is just a show more enjoyable in the moment than it is upon lengthy reflection, and I don’t mean to downplay how much I enjoyed the show by focusing on the moments when it was a downer. If all you’re looking for is a ton of laughs, Zimmerman has probably got you covered.

“Ordinary Americans” In Extraordinarily Awful Times

My last review was of Watson, a show which explores the consequences of giving into nefarious pressure. Playwright Joseph McDonough’s new play, Ordinary Americans, instead illustrates the cost of speaking up against the powers that be. 

Ordinary Americans’ current production at Palm Beach Dramaworks is another co-world premiere. The show runs there until this January 5th, but will be remounted starring much of the same cast at Miami’s Gablestage starting on January 18th.

Though Ordinary Americans’ script occasionally seemed a bit disjointed and rote, this production showcased some excellent actors and explored an interestingly unfortunate period in American history. The play’s primary subject is Gertrude Berg of The Goldbergs, a sitcom (no relation to the current ABC sitcom, by the way) that aired as a radio drama from 1929 to 1946 and on the then-novel invention television from 1949 to 1956. 

I came into the play not at all familiar with either and initially found the story a little hard to get into, especially during the amusing but somewhat schticky and superfluous recreated scenes from The Goldbergs itself.

However, I became more engaged as the story delved deeper into the question of whether or not Berg would acquiesce to her superiors’ request that she fire Phillip Loeb, a Goldbergs actor who had been falsely accused of communism by Joseph McCarthy and co. 

Loeb was one of many performing arts professionals who became “blacklisted” throughout Hollywood as a result of such unfounded accusations, and was also one of a suspiciously high number of McCarthy victims whom, as Ordinary Americans points out, were Jewish. While I’m loathe to make a Holocaust comparison, it’s one implied by some  of Berg’s dialogue which expresses dismay at the rise of what she calls “American Naziism”. 

(Happy Chanukah to us, right? Note also that an unusual number of homosexuals were targeted as well, an occurrence which is sometimes referred to as the “lavender scare” as opposed to the entire debacle’s “red scare”.)

Though I can see the intention behind the play’s tight focus on Gertrude Berg and her close associates, I wonder if it may have benefited from a broader scope and focused more on how the pervasive climate of fear affected an entire industry or even an entire nation than how it affected one woman and her TV show, though Elizabeth Dimon’s excellent performance certainly makes that woman a compelling one. 

I also wonder what might have been had Loeb, the character with the most at stake, been the focal point of Ordinary Americans instead of Berg. In the part, David Kwiat certainly created a compelling portrait of a man of integrity whose inability to restore his reputation eventually has chilling personal consequences; Loeb’s courtroom testimonial towards the play’s end was among its most memorable moments.

Though Berg is initially adamant that Loeb should not be dismissed and even allows her show to be canned rather than giving into the network’s demands, her seemingly unshakable conviction is gradually worn down when she finds that nobody in the TV world will give The Goldbergs a second chance.

As desperation gradually chips away at both Berg’s and Loeb’s ideals, the two performers eventually come to an unsatisfying compromise that turns out to be too little too late to allow Berg to recapture mainstream success. If professional exclusion and personal devastation is the cost of doing the right thing, is it any wonder so many of us don’t?

Margery Lowe is a riot as Gertrude Berg’s bubbly and faithful friend Fannie, and Rob Wahl and Tom Lowe, each playing multiple roles, skillfully round out the cast. The show also had several strikingly quotable lines, like “money talks, but fear talks louder,” and, not to give too much away, the one that gives the play its title.

Because of the events of Ordinary Americans, The Goldbergs’ TV time slot was eventually filled by the white-bread I Love Lucy, a stark contrast to the conspicuously Jewish Goldbergs. If more diverse writers had been allowed to keep (or ever had a chance to grab) the mic, would today’s America be a place more accepting of immigrants and cultural diversity? 

At least Ordinary Americans succeeds in restoring Berg’s voice and bringing good old Molly Goldberg back to life, if, lamentably, around seventy years later than if the world had been a fairer one.

Watching Watson, And Wondering Where Culpability Begins And Ends

Watson, playing at Gablestage until this December 22nd, replaced the show originally scheduled for this slot in the company’s season. Director Joseph Adler, who also helped playwright James Grippando develop the show, felt that its story was especially urgent, and it doesn’t take any great leaps of the imagination to see why. 

Though the play makes no direct reference to modern times or our current political circumstances, the bleeding subtext implicit in a play that explores the risk of kowtowing to a corrupt political leader is beating just under the surface. The “Watson” of the title is Thomas J. Watson, founder of still-dominant technology company IBM, and the show focuses on his and IBM’s role in providing the Third Reich with machines that were used to more efficiently catalog Jews and corrall them for slaughter.

Some theatregoers who prefer brighter subject matter (again, e.g. my mother) may be put-off by the idea of yet another Holocaust play, espeically if they managed to make it to Gablestage’s last season closer. Yet there are so many angles from which one can approach the matter, so many people at least a little at fault, so many ways-in to just one gargantuan tragedy that it’s not a subject apt to get old. Perhaps, in fact, we should never be done talking about it, just in case such a silence would allow it to happen again.

Grippando is new to theatre but has made a name for himself as a crime and thriller writer, and though this is his first play, he shows an intriguing grasp of the theatrical form. Watson begins the play by addressing the audience directly and offers us further monologues and asides throughout, and the play moves smoothly across time and space to create an engaging tableau. All of the play’s supporting actors (Peter W. Galman, Peter Haig, Diana Garle, Margot Moreland, and Barry Tarallo) are tasked with playing multiple roles, and their versatility is essential to making the play work.

Stephen G. Anthony plays Watson, a likable, charismatic, and intelligent man, who also just happened to find himself in the middle of an impossible dilemma. I think, too, that he remains a relatively honorable a man despite this one life-shattering mistake. After all, it’s impossible to know: would Watson not sending over his machinery have actually prevented any of the turmoil? 

The character who persuades Watson to go against his initial impulse and do so, says no, Hitler was just going to build his own machines if he had to, would find some other way, but there’s no way of knowing whether that way would have been quite so horrendously efficient.

Oddly, I actually do not blame Watson for his indiscretion as harshly as his rebellious son, a feisty Iain Batchelor as Thomas J. Watson, Jr does, and the conflict between the two regarding the matter often felt a bit exaggerated and forced. 

Watson frames his decision as less about his personal gain than about the interests of his company and his stockholders, an excuse that does make a certain amount of sense. Yet, if everyone has such excuses, then who’s left to stop the next massacre? 

The flimsiness of this excuse is furthered illustrated in an interesting scene depicting a rabbi who provides a list of non-practicing Jews to the Nazis to ensure that he and his family would be safe from his ravages. Is someone who did something that led more directly to harm when he and his loved ones were in immediate danger more or less culpable than someone like Watson, who made a decision that led less immediately to evil from his cushy white-collar office?

The relationship between Watson and one of his long-time employees, crucial to a moment near the end of the play, could have been more developed to give said moment more of an impact on us in the audience, but this is a play still in development, and such kinks could easily be ironed out in future drafts. Far more memorable than it’s flaws were the questions Watson raises, which keep me wondering even now.

Everything May Not Be Super Great, But “Everything Is Super Great” Was

For… reasons that are definitely reasons, our eternal and often futile struggle to create and maintain human connection is a bit of a preoccupation of mine. Maybe that’s why I felt myself so affected by Everything Is Super Great, the new play by Stephen Brown that appeared in it’s co-world premiere at Theatre Lab last weekend and is playing until December 22. (In a co-world premiere, more than one company produces a play at about the same time so they can share world premiere credits.)

Thanks to a witty script that offers a consistent stream of laughs, the show’s two and a half hours seemed to go by in a flash; in hindsight, I wonder if such repartee masked gaps in character development, but at the time I was too busy enjoying it all. Stand-out scenes include a slapstick balloon-popping sequence, a workplace smoke break, and an incredibly awkward Christmas party. 

The show is subtitled (a comedy about what’s missing), but the show certainly had its dramatic side as well. Perhaps it could more accurately be described as about who’s missing; most notably, the main character Tommy’s brother, whose absence shapes the plot and his psyche, but also some loved ones of supporting characters Dave (Tommy’s therapist) and Alice (his manager at Starbucks,  also kind of his crush).

Timothy Mark Davis is believably bumbling and consistently hilarious as Dave, who, it turns out has no suitable qualifications for therapizing. Christian Mouisset, as Tommy delivered an overall excellent performance, but occasionally slipped into a somewhat whiny register, especially when delivering questions or dealing with his perennially annoying mother, Jeni Hacker’s Anne, though I could also certainly sympathize with his characters’ dismissive reaction to her overeager mothering. 

Anne works at Walmart, her idea of a homemade baked good/appropriate Christmas gift is a buttered and toasted pop tart, and an amateurish collage seems to her an appropriate way of commemorating her missing child. Hacker played the role unironically and sincerely, which was especially impressive given these somewhat lowbrow attributes and led to both some of the play’s funniest moments and the most touching ones, which showcased her ardent love for her son.

In the end, though Dave and Alice’s missing person subplots both find some resolution, there are no real answers to be had regarding Tommy’s brother; instead, he and his mother must begin to cope with the fact that answers probably will never be had. 

Meanwhile, though Alice and Tommy bond throughout the show, it never becomes overtly romantic, and by the play’s end, the winds of chance that brought them together seem to have brought them apart again; a bittersweet final monologue by Tommy suggests that this separation will most likely be permanent. It isn’t any less special because it was not a “relationship” that it was so short-lived, or in that it most likely will never be rekindled, sustained. Sometimes moments are all we get . It was there. It happened. It matters. 

Once Upon The Time I Saw “Once”

Based on the 2000s hit movie of the same name, Once, playing until this December 22nd at the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center, is pretty non-traditional as musicals go. For one, most of the musical numbers do not serve as inexplicable expressions of character’s internal states but instead spring organically from the characters’ status as musicians.

The play’s gorgeous music was definitely its most memorable aspect, starting even before the curtain was officially up with a rousing pre-show full of traditional Irish dancing and gorgeous folk songs. However, its plot-or-lack thereof was somewhat less remarkable.

The show also takes place in Dublin, and though this gave the show a charmingly foreign feel, the characters’ heavy European accents occasionally made it hard for me to make out lyrics and dialogue. This was especially notable during the Bank Manager’s (Todd Aulwurm) comedic number towards the end of Act One.Though Aulwurm’s energy and demeanor were mightily amusing on their own, I suspect the moment would have been even funnier if I could actually make out what he was saying.

Recent Rider University graduate Mariah Lotz played the female lead, an interestingly unnamed “Girl” whose quirky surface belies hidden burdens. Jack Gerhard, as her counterpart, the “Guy,” is often stuck playing the straight man to Girl’s peppier antics, but his soulfulness comes through in the music the two’s relationship revolves around. 

Guy and Girl, after all, first connect after the latter is so struck by a song of Guy’s that she forces her way into his life despite his initial reticence to connect. Their bond deepens after the two duet on the movie’s most famous song, the Oscar-winning Falling Slowly, which actually appears once towards the beginning of the musical and again towards its ending, its meaning having shifted mightily in the meanwhile. 

Their mission to make music together continues to define their untraditional “love” story throughout the play. Their narrative lacks any traditional resolution or consumation but results instead in the recording of an album once guitar-playing Guy and piano-playing Girl join forces and the Girl pulls some strings (the non-guitar kind, if I need specify) to secure them studio time.

Once’s music’s sometimes dubious connection to its plot is more or less atoned for by the show’s unique and intuitive choreography and the consistent beauty of both the casts’ strong vocals and their instrumental accompaniment, which was provided, interestingly enough, by themselves; near every multitalented cast member doubled as musician!
Once is the sort of low-key story the casual theatregoer (eg, my mother…) might walk out of wondering what, exactly, the point was. I, though, maintain that unique beauty of tragically missed connections, especially when they result in some unforgettable art-making, can be a kind of point in and of themselves.

Luscious and Lascivious “Lipstick”

While I doubt any comedy will ever get quite as close to my heart as darker material tends to, there’s also really no bad time to take a visit to one. Theatre, after all, is as much escapism as it is anything else, and the breakneck pace, too-perfect coincidences, and fast-paced dialogue of well-done humorous farces like Lipstick, which finishes its run this upcoming weekend, often constitute a perfect evasion from everyday.

Produced as it was by LGBTQ-focused theatre company Island City Stage, it’s no surprise that Lipstick was distinguished from its farcy predecessors by its raunchy plot and array of LGBT characters. Jodi Dellaventura provided a detailed and realistic apartment set, strong enough to stand up to the play’s wide variety of theatrical antics. 

Actress Vanessa Elise served as the good-hearted center of the show,  the (relatively) down-to-earth Anna, while Corey Rose appeared as her more flamboyant best friend Mal. Their grounded friendship and consistent characterization were key to our investment in the story, laying a good foundation for the play’s zanier moments.

Other major players included Rachel Gil de Gibaja as Cara, Anna’s somewhat unhinged ex, and Abby Nigro as Kelly, the sexually confused yoga class pal Anna invites over for what she optimistically hopes is a date. Gibaja brought a comic intensity to her role, though if anything she could have been more out there to suit such an extreme plot and her character’s unusual behavior: namely, running away from her own wedding in an attempt to win Anna back.

Meanwhile, Nigro brought the right mix of appealing innocence and sensuality to justify her status as the apple of Anna’s eye. Apart from Nigro’s winning coquettishness, I also have to give credit to the costume department for her stylish and ambiguously gay look.

In a not-entirely-psychologically realistic twist, Nigro’s character’s confusion and repression regarding her sexuality was revealed to stem mostly from conflict over her vanished father, who had his own outstanding sexual issues. 

Though I admit to initially rooting for Gibaja’s character to pull off a romantic win, (nothing gets to me like the rekindling of a lost love…) Anna and Kelly’s chemistry eventually won me over to their side, and the pair’s sweetness and genuine affection for each other came through even within the play’s bawdy setting. 
Dean Nigro, Peter Bisuito, and Christina Alexander also nailed their smaller roles, with special props to Nigro for pulling off an impressive array of costume and character changes. Plotwise, though, the ultimate revelation of the identity of Bishuito’s character, Hank the handyman struck me as a little too convenient and too out-there, even for a farce, or maybe it just could have stood to be a little more directly foreshadowed. Or maybe I could stand to get a little more used to the absurd, at least when attending a play like Lipstick!

A Funny Review Of That Musical About The Forum

Fortunately, you still have a whole weekend of performances left in which you might behold A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, a uniquely uproarious musical farce. The show was produced by MNM Theatre Company, a group that can be distinguished by its live music and its practice of showcasing exclusively Florida-based actors, which made the musicals’ more or less perfect casting and the sheer caliber of everyone onstage all the more impressive. 

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum also happens to be the first work for which my beloved Stephen Sondheim wrote both the music and the lyrics. Though it is one of his more accessible shows, so accessible in fact that even my rare theatergoer of a father came along with me voluntarily, it is not devoid of the composer’s trademark wit and wordplay. This was especially evident in songs like “Impossible,” that rhyme “impassible” and “irascible” while pitting father Senex against son Hero in a battle for the lovely Philia’s affections.

Johnbarry Green served as the memorable and capable centerpiece of the show: Pseudolus, the slave whose quest for freedom set the rest of the play’s cascade of capers and mistaken identities into motion. He drew us in right away in standout opening number “Comedy Tonight,” and easily maintained our attention show-long with his playful antics.

(Fun fact: the show was in danger of closing until the aforementioned number replaced an earlier opening song; the play then ended up running for 964 performances (more than two and a half years!)

J. Savage and Meg Frost as young lover and ingenue Hero and Philia both exuded an innocence and earnestness so endearing that you couldn’t help but root for them as a couple despite their characters’ apparent shallowness and idiocy.

Then there was the incredible Sean Williams Davis, whose booming voice immediately made a huge impression when he appeared as Miles Gloriosus midway through Act 2. His hugely dramatic reactions to his character’s unfortunate circumstances led to plenty of drollery. 

Aaron Bower as Domina also nailed her one major song and exuded a strong presence throughout the play, serving as a worthy opponent to the formidable Troy Stanley as her husband Senex. Even Stephen Eisenwasser, Frank Francisco, and Elijah Pearson-Martinez as the three Proteans, who had the unenviable task of shape-shifting into a variety of characters in order to fill out all the play’s minor roles, provided more than their fair share of hilarious moments.

If I had to find something to nitpick about Forum, it might be less the folly of MNM than of the script itself. Despite the cast’s excellent delivery of it, I couldn’t help but be put off by the blatant lecherousness of “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” by the fact that the character Philia had no aspirations or personality traits besides being “absolutely lovely,” or by the fact that Hero falls for her unquestioningly simply because she is.  I also thought the costuming of the courtesans skewed a little male gaze-y and I would’ve appreciated if, well, any of the female characters had had a little more agency, but you know, no show can have everything, and it was written nearly 60 years ago. Forum had more than enough going for it to add up to an incredible evening.

On Stories/Some Thanksgiving Thoughts

So, I plan on reflecting on the experience of attending and speaking at New City Players CitySpeaks towards the beginning of this month— procrastinated a little on this one since it wasn’t as urgent as the play reviews I’ve been working on, but it’s kind of a good Thanksgiving fit nonetheless!

I also plan on seizing the broader topic of “storytelling” as an opportunity to ramble about some of my writing and some general experiential stuff, so get ready for a pretty wild ride!

New City Players’ CitySpeaks is a monthly gathering that offers community members the opportunity to share and listen to each others’ powerful true-life stories, in the spirit of more well-known storytelling events like those hosted by The Moth.

Now, though I am an introvert with an absurd amount of social anxiety, I’m also a bit of an adrenaline junkie and can have quite the exhibitionist streak — does any writer or actor not? Plus, there was at work the same force that routinely draws me to improv, a kind of exposure therapy ideology: me thinking that if I just force myself into enough uncomfortable situations th discomfort might eventually start to fade. So when a New City Players member asked if I’d be interested in telling a story at the next CitySpeaks, it was a relatively quick road to: well, why not?

In contrast to NCP’s more formal Forums, City Speaks is a pretty freeform affair; storytellers are actually encouraged not to have something strictly prepared, only a loose idea of the story they are going to tell onstage.

 But since I wasn’t sure if I could handle quite that much impulsivity, I decided that, instead of working off the top of my head, I was going to try and condense the ideas in the 300+ page memoir I’m basically-finished writing into a pre-written 8-minute speech.

I put together this speech the day of the event and ended up running slightly over nine minutes, so I’d say I did pretty well, especially considering that I felt a bit overwhelmed by the task, partially because a defining thread of that memoir is the fallibility of narrative itself.

To quote its opening chapter, “Stories can be our prisons and our motivators, our elixirs and our poisons, our diseases and our cures. They can help us make meaning and sense of tragedies that first appear vast and random and indecipherable, but they can also distort the simplest of things to the point that they are unrecognizable. The stories we tell ourselves can save, but they can also, quite literally, kill.”

There are times when our stories can strengthen us, help us hold onto who we are and what we believe at times when all else seems lost. Yet if we start believing the wrong story, get sucked in by some sort of flawed dogma or even just start thinking the wrong things about ourselves—not good enough, not strong enough, not pretty enough—the walls of our stories can close in around us and start to cut us off from the world, from truth itself.

For example: if an otherwise rational person genuinely believes a “story” in which they will not be happy unless they are thin, they may take some pretty absurd or even dangerous actions in an attempt to achieve that goal.

One of my fatal flaws is my tendency to make things and people into more than they are. Letting my obsession with being a certain weight entirely eclipse my capacity for rational thought on and off for a good 10 years is one example of this (semi-starvation also has a way of physically precluding people from thinking rationally, especially about food and weight, but that’s a 40-page tangent for another time); getting so attached to my view of how things ought to be and how people ought to feel that I completely disregard their actual feelings is another.

In a way, I think my tendency to see unlikely connections between unrelated things, my capacity for passion and obsession, and my inclination towards experiencing the world at such a high pitch is part of the reason that I ended up a writer, since writing is both an unexpected application of these traits and a surprisingly useful coping mechanism for them.

After all, the very act of telling a story can be healing. In addition to the anecdotal reports of artists worldwide, many formal studies have shown that expressive writing can have significant positive psychological effects.

Some of this evidence was in fact so strong that it spawned a whole field called “narrative therapy,” which helps patients “rewrite” their life stories and revise their self-conceptions in a way that helps them envision a better future.

Which brings me to the bizarre point that I think my journey from my most eating-disordered moments to my current state of semi-sanity was defined less by any sort of conventional mental health algorithm than by a long winding road of making sense of it by writing stories, first in the form of a slightly autobiographical theatrical script and then in the form of this aforementioned memoir.

Weirdly enough, I wrote the bulk of both of these things during periods where my behavior ranged from incredibly disordered to… well, still pretty disordered. Yet I found myself writing strangely hopeful, strangely radical, and strangely impassioned anti-eating disorder and anti-diet-culture manifestos before I ever consciously allowed myself to consider that I might actually believe what I was saying; that perhaps I’d been arguing in favor of health so unambiguously less for any as-of-yet abstracted reader than because some part of me wanted to justify it for myself.

Of course, in line with my penchant for overthinking everything ever, I then went for another meta-loop and made that process of discovery and how it related to my self-invention as an artist part of the narrative of my memoir itself.

(I promise, it makes sense in context.

Um, maybe. Anyone wanna read it and let me know?)

Yet things still are seldom as linear as we’d like them to be, especially not things as deceptively complicated as eating disorders. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that certain conceptions of eating disorders dominate the cultural sphere, while those with less visible or straightforward presentations are less acknowledged.

When someone is asked to imagine someone with an eating disorder, they’ll probably envision the skeletal anorexic, the off-to-the-bathroom bulimic, or the obviously overweight binge eater.

There’s less of a template for someone who, for instance, vacillates between periods of bingeing and periods of restriction often enough to maintain a normal weight but is so preoccupied by these behaviors and compulsions that she cannot maintain a normal mind or life, or a “bulimic” who compensates for binges solely through over-exercise and fasting rather than the behaviors we typically think of as “purging.”

I won’t say that I’m free of every disordered thought or behavior today, but that the formerly maddening extremes have become a lot less extreme, and that I am slowly regaining my capacity to give my full attention to the things and people around me rather than being entirely preoccupied by my neurotic insular world.

I want to believe that this upswing will continue, that I can make peace with my entirely normal weight rather than spend the rest of my life chasing some improbable ideal. I want to believe I can eventually become one of those sincerely body-positive people I so admire and have the confidence to start… posting bikini pictures on Instagram or something. (For that matter, be able to wear a bikini…buy a bikini?)

I want to abandon the physically and mentally limiting beliefs of diet culture entirely so that I can obsess instead about theatre and books and politics and climate change and human rights and animal rights and everything else in the wider world that is more important than goddamn calories.

Now, all of the above is true, but it is also true that I was fully committed to a hare-brained weight loss scheme less than a month ago. (Now, that’s yet another story…..)

So maybe that makes me a hypocrite; or maybe life just isn’t linear, and maybe, in some ways, realizing how much better it feels to be in weight-loss limbo than to be on some stupid diet might be one of my most important realizations yet.

But I was supposed to be talking about Cityspeaks!!!

Perhaps thanks to one nerve-steadying glass of wine before I was called up to the mic, I was able to accomplish my basic goal of reading my full story in a relatively understandable fashion. My four fellow storytellers also happened to have some amusing and amazing stories; I won’t go into detail about those stories here since I’m not sure whether the readers intended everything they said to propagate beyond the evening and that particular audience, but to Rafael Martinez, Nick Valdes, Meaghan Richter, and Shannon Adams; bra-freaking-vo.

So, now, bringing things back to Thanksgiving: I’m grateful I got the chance to speak, and maybe even more grateful I got the chance to listen; got a chance to have my perspectives questioned and my horizons broadened, and to be reminded of some of the ways in which I wasn’t alone.

Hearing stories, after all, can sometimes, be as healing as writing them. It can be a great relief to know that you aren’t the only one who experiences anxiety, or has experienced injustice, or has felt betrayed by their own body or mind. The understanding and empathy that can emerge from stories can help raise awareness and start a dialogue; and that could well be the first step to change.

And so to finish off this sweeping Thanksgiving day proclamation: I’m grateful that the world has so often and so efficiently saved me from my own idiocy, and I’m grateful I have such amazing friends and an amazing family who have consistently supported me despite it.

I’m grateful I live in an incredibly privileged sector of the world and of the country, even if it doesn’t always feel like I do. I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to see some incredible theatre, and participate in some incredible theatre, and learn, over the years, from some of the best theatre and writing teachers around.

I’m grateful that the collective consciousness of my generation is changing, and widening, and exploding, that awareness of so many issues is expanding so quickly, for how much more open things are now than they were even when I was growing up. I’m grateful that I can publicly admit to things like having autism, or being bisexual, or even having an eating disorder without feeling the world will (necessarily) come crashing down around me if I do. And I’m grateful that whenever I’ve almost totally lost faith in the world’s goodness, something—or someone—will most always materialize to restore my hope.

The next CitySpeaks is on December 5th, if any of ya’ll feel like checking it out. In the meantime, everyone, happy Thanksgiving, and enjoy this video of my “story!”

A Look At “Andy And The Orphans”

The play Andy and the Orphans, currently onstage at Sol Theatre courtesy of Primal Forces Productions, was originally titled Amy and the Orphans. This version of the play was gender-flipped to accommodate the casting of Edward Barbanell, a Coral Springs resident who actually understudied the role on Broadway last year and shares his character’s diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome.

Barbanell’s casting is a huge win for authentic representation, and the actor gave a nuanced and moving performance as the movie-obsessed Andy, a character who was heavily based on the playwright Lindsay Ferrentino’s real-life aunt Amy. Like the title character of the play, the real Amy had Down’s Syndrome and spent most of her life institutionalized. Amy and The Orphans was thus Ferrentino’s way of grappling with the more unpleasant aspects of her aunt’s life.

The inciting incident of the play is the death of Andy’s father Bobby, which prompts his newly “orphaned” siblings Maggie (Patti Gardner) and Jacob (Jeffrey Bruce) to make a rare visit to their brother Andy in order to tell him what has happened and take him on a road trip to the funeral. What they didn’t count on was Jacqueline Laggy as Andy’s caregiver Kathy being required to join them or being confronted with a devastating revelation about their brother’s past.

Though some criticism of the show focuses on the fact that Ferrentino seemed to put Maggie and Jacob at her story’s center rather than Andy himself, I did not get the impression that the playwright focused on them unduly. After all, the character of Andy has a somewhat inherently limited perspective, and the experience of the loved ones with disabilities can certainly be as complex, interesting, and stage-worthy as the stories of those who are disabled themselves.

I definitely think this play explored both sides of the story and presented Andy’s siblings as relatively sympathetic characters, since the most horrific events of the play happened when they were children and couldn’t conceivably intervene. I also viewed their efforts to reconnect and make amends with Andy as sincere ones, and may too have been skewed by Bruce and Gardner’s wonderful performances. Their humorous road trip antics and laughably pedestrian concerns (like Jacob’s obsession with juicing and Maggie’s skittle-related health scare) did much to balance out the story’s darker aspects, as did Laggy’s Kathy’s no-nonsense exasperation with the two.

The parents of these three “orphans,” on the other hand, portrayed in flashback by Joey De La Rua and Amber Lynn Benson, came across as somewhat less likable, and I’m not sure how much of that to put down to the writing and how much to the performance. Though Benson showed some considerable comedic chops as Sarah during the couples’ lighter moments, she definitely came off as a little too casual and self-assured when making the wrenching decision to institutionalize Andy (especially in comparison to the character of Tami in Falling earlier this season, who wholeheartedly resists making a similar decision about her own son).

De la Rua as Bobby seemed somewhat more genuinely affected by the gravity of the situation than his wife did, but it is implied that both are complicit in surrendering Andy to what we would eventually learn was a horrifically abusive environmentit cost him his teeth and a chunk of his leg! It’s also, unfathomably, implied that Bobby and Sarah knew exactly how horrific that this environment was.

Fortunately, Andy seems to have found some happiness in a more caring institutional environment by the play’s present, and found even a job and a girlfriend, and I was glad to see him assert his desire to stay there even after his guilt-ridden siblings presented him with an alternative.

Still, Andy’s woundedness is expressed in a surprisingly moving closing monologue in which he uses movie quotes to express his complex feelings about his family and his past. The incredible work of Barbanell in the role lent credence to play’s conviction that his character, too, may have been able to live a more productive and fulfilling life—if only anyone had ever given him a real chance, Andy “couldda been a contender” indeed.