Posted June 28, 2012 at 1:47 pm
by Martin Denton, nytheatre.com
Should I have been surprised that the very final show of La MaMa’s 50th anniversary “homecoming” season would turn out to be the wisest, most rewarding, and most affecting musical of the season?
Lost in Staten Island: More tales of Modern Living is the latest in a long-running, ongoing series of intimate musicals by Richard Sheinmel and Clay Zambo about Mitch Mitchell, a downtown performer who writes and stars in shows inspired by his life. Mitch is Sheinmel’s alter ego, and when we last encountered him (in Post Modern Living, in 2010, a work I admired so much that I published it in my anthology Plays and Playwrights 2011 and then online at Indie Theater Now) he was helping his mother, Joy, get through a scary bout with cancer. We also met his older brother Robby, a brilliant man suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome who keeps threatening to kill himself.
In Lost in Staten Island, Robby has finally made good on that threat. The play covers a single eventful day in April when Mitch and Joy deal with the immediate aftermath of Robby’s suicide. Joy has a list of tasks that need to be gotten through, and both she and Mitch’s longtime boyfriend Chester council that the only way to get through such a list is one item at a time. Mitch and Joy recount and re-enact moments from the day and that’s the show: improbably, perhaps, it is resonant, funny, ineffably moving, and uplifting.
Sheinmel plays Mitch with enormous warmth, intelligence and vulnerability. Wendy Merritt returns as Joy, and she shows us all of the warring emotions within this very smart, very well-put-together woman whose career as a therapist serves her well. The relationship between Mitch and Joy is just lovely, and a rare one in theater or film that I’ve encountered: a mother and son who like each other, treat each other as grown-up independent beings without a lot of emotional/manipulative baggage but clearly with a great deal of love and respect. Sheinmel and Merritt have great chemistry on stage, too; they give us a tight familial unit to root for and care about.
Chris Orbach plays Robby, or more accurately Mitch’s memories of Robby, mostly as a boy (in delightful, entirely convincing flashbacks of the two brothers playing “Star Trek” and other games), and sometimes as the troubled man he grew into. It’s a terrific, deeply felt performance.
Mick Hilgers, who has been part of the “Modern Living” plays since the beginning, plays Chester (here, mostly a soothing presence on the phone while Mitch drives around Staten Island with Joy) as well as various other roles. Also in the chorus are Sarah Corey (who is also a vocalist on most of the songs by Clay Zambo) and the splendidly versatile Catherine Porter, who shines here as a funeral director, an old lady in a park, and the landlord of Robby’s apartment building. One of things I loved about the performances of all three—and the way their various characters are written by Sheinmel in the script—is that they’re palpably human: required, in difficult circumstances, to make Mitch and Joy jump through a series of hoops, and constrained, by position and distance, to the helplessness of platitudes. But their well-meaning intent is always clear. And we have a sense that Mitch and Joy, while both deeply involved in their own individual grieving, are nevertheless not only emotionally available to each other, but also to various strangers they encounter on their weird journey who they know are suffering even more than they are.
Indeed, it’s the deep humanity of Sheinmel’s storytelling that makes Lost in Staten Island such a special theatre experience, at once unassuming and remarkable. The contributions of his main collaborators are equally invaluable: director Jason Jacobs guides the work unobtrusively but assuredly, and Zambo’s score—six songs plus one reprise, not integrated into the action in a conventional way but absolutely integral to the spirit and themes of the piece—is stunning, featuring one song in particular, “Corner of Then,” that gorgeously evokes the range of feelings we experience as memories of persons and places now lost collide within our minds. Music director Cody Owen Stine and his bandmates Charles Casimiro (bass) and Dan Acquisto (drums) provide accompaniment of striking beauty and simplicity.
Lost in Staten Island is not just a tale of modern living, but a celebration of the joys and sorrows of life in general. It’s rooted in the notion that strangers can come together in a darkened room and watch and listen to one another; the intangible but very real connection that results happens far too infrequently in our current culture of technological isolation and fabricated theater events that distance audiences from their feelings. This is a show where our nerve endings stay exposed; where the scariness of confronting emotions is mitigated through the safety of a nurturing community of like-minded individuals. It’s an experience to treasure, and one of the most fulfilling ones I’ve had in a theatre all year.