Review: “New York Animals” at the New Ohio Theater
David Roberts and Joseph Verlezza
“I'm too old -- they say -- for more memories./No walking along the park in some darker breeze./You're no city for dreamers, only lovers you leave behind./Oh, New York, do not waste my time.” (Burt Bacharach/Steven Slater)
"Life is a Cabaret, old chum." (“Cabaret”)
It is New York City 1995. It is another time with different rules, a disparate energy, and a diverse population possibly involved in a common quest called connection. As one song states “It’s a New York, I love you, it’s just you and, man, that’s beautiful too. Still you’re screwed.”
A father on his way to meet his son at the Guggenheim in a taxi driven by a delusional hypochondriac conspiracy theory driver. A new mother with her jaundiced four day old baby dismissing her maid and pleading with her husband not to leave town. A despondent woman mourning the loss of her second child and her husband unable to take another miscarriage. A clothing manufacturer behind in his payments. A Park Avenue hostess navigating cancellations to her important dinner party, dodging accusations of classism and racism by Jerry’s delivery boy. A father trying to have dinner with his daughter. A lonely straight woman convincing her gay male friend to father a child and stay with her. A delusional peeping-tom asking the man he has been spying on to meet him for closure. Two friends meeting on a movie line. A homeless person raging against injustice and inhumanity. A waitress at a Jewish restaurant incapable of understanding or respecting the boundaries of her clients. The emergency room at St. Vincent’s hospital where all of these stories collide in the style of the 2004 movie “Crash.”
These are among the New York stories shared by twenty-one characters played by five actors (one had been added the night of this performance) that make up Steven Sater’s “New York Animals” currently running at the New Ohio Theatre. With songs by Burt Bacharach and Mr. Sater, this world premiere play focuses on a group of New Yorkers navigating “love, sex, money, and impossible relationships.” Under Eric Tucker’s precise and careful direction the actors convince themselves and one another that it is imperative for survival in the City to “just keep on believing.” Blanca Camacho, Ramsey Faragallah, Edmund Lewis, Susannah Millonzi, and Eric Tucker create their disparate characters with ease and infuse them with a remarkable authenticity and believability given the time they have for character development.
Although an intriguing attempt, this production at this viewing (changes are still being made), was not able to achieve the level of cohesiveness needed to make converging stories transform into one mosaic of colorful inhabitants. Perhaps part of the problem is the lack of character development and situations assuming control of forwarding the plot. There simply is not enough time to dive into the depth of twenty one characters in two hours, some of which is devoted to the inspiring musical numbers. Also we have seen these characters too many times, leading to a sense of stereotype, with no new or interesting delineation.
One of the amazing aspects of the production is the setting resembling an intimate West Village club or piano bar from days gone by. The performers integrate using every possible space afforded them, adjusting chairs and tables to comfortably sit, stand and sing conceivably fabricating a connection with the audience including them in the action. It is a remarkable theatrical perception, at times even transforming the top of the piano into a performing space that is another time and place. Also the musical numbers are intertwined within the story, sometimes commenting on the action or setting a specific mood with lyrics that embellish the angst and desperation. Among the most memorable lyrics include: “I touch your hand and feel it slippin’ away from me” (from “How the Heart Knows”); “Wondering when, oh when, the dark part would be over” (from “When I Was You”); and “There’s a lot of you left in my day. When does it end? How do I get myself again” (from “A Lot of You Left in My Day.”)
Debra Barsha is a vehement musical director as she competently infuses a soul into the body of work, coaxing piano keys to produce pure Bacharach melodies and providing a variety of inventive vocal backup. Jo Lampert as lead vocalist is without doubt the heart of this production, appearing lavish in an array of eclectic bohemian costumes, as she weaves riffs, belts out blues or simply informs in Broadway style. In whatever fashion she chooses, Ms. Lampert, takes control, acts assertively, defines the message and makes the song her own.
So for the present, it might be enough to observe these artists creating, belonging, understanding, developing, and performing a new work and, ironically, achieving a complex theatrical connection. “So we wander on our way, and it’s life as usual with our pockets full of something beautiful” (from “Something That Was Beautiful.”) It is important to take the time to see “New York Animals” and share in something truly beautiful.
NEW YORK ANIMALS
“New York Animals” is presented by Bedlam and features Debra Barsha, Blanca Camacho, Ramsey Faragallah, Lena Gabrielle, Jo Lampert, Edmund Lewis, Susannah Millonzi, Eric Tucker, David Wearn and Spiff Wiegand. “New York Animals” has a set design by John McDermott, costume design by Nikki Delhomme, lighting design by Les Dickert, vocal design by AnnMarie Milazzo, and musical direction by Debra Barsha. Production photos by T Charles Erickson.
Tickets range from $30.00 to $49.00 and are available at www.newohiotheatre.org or www.theatrebedlam.org. “New York Animals” plays Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. at New Ohio Theater, 154 Christopher Street in Manhattan’s West Village. Please note there will be no performance Thursday, December 17. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes including one intermission.