Review: Humor is More Serious Than Seriousness. ‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’ with The Night Shift
Thomas Burns Scully
- OnStage New York Critic
- Tiwtter: @ThomasDBS
When it comes to the subject of physical and mental disability, the kid gloves get broken out at lightning speed. Of course, this is a natural, understandable social reaction, and it probably avoids a lot of embarrassment all round. But a lack of frankness, and an unwillingness to allow humor into a conversation is often severely limiting and robs people of an honest voice. The modern level of discussion is at a better place than it has ever been. By no means perfect, but when you see comedians like Francesca Martinez doing stand-up about her experience with cerebral palsy, talking about it, by turns, earnestly and flippantly, you realize that time does elicit development. Even if on a geological timescale. You could say similar things about the play ‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’. Originally produced in England in the late sixties, it is a non-PC, gloves-off, honest and often hilarious piece that follows a couple raising their cerebral palsy stricken daughter. It seems strangely timely, and yet of its time. Its relentless humor allows a keen insight in to the life of parents in a seemingly hopeless situation. Presented last weekend by The Night Shift at IRT, it was touching and fun, and a more than fitting off-off revival of an excellent play.
‘Joe Egg’ tells the story of Brian and Sheila, a married couple in their thirties. They lead barely manageable lives loomed over constantly by the specter of their daughter Joe. Joe has severe cerebral palsy which renders her wheelchair bound, incapable of communication and, largely, as Bri puts it, a vegetable. Joe’s condition puts considerable strain on their relationship, and the two of them, particularly Bri, use elaborate black humor to manage. We see them interacting with Joe, pretending that she is talking back to them, giving her different imaginary personas, building a series of ridiculous fantasies around her. However the disquiet in their relationship gradually comes more and more to a head, which prompts Brian to take some questionable actions on an evening when Sheila brings her friends Freddie and Pam over for drinks. All the while the question hovers as to what the right thing to do really is, and there are no obvious answers.
Director Christina Ashby’s work here is excellent. The time and place are unified like tea with milk and two sugars. Probably the most enviable touches are the spurs of authentic 60s BBC radio that play in the background at different points. Nigel Harsch’s sound design is excellent, and Ashby’s collected vision builds a world on stage that feels distinctly British, despite being located on the Western side of the island of Manhattan. I think that is the greatest compliment I can pay to the show, that it has the smell and sound of authenticity swirling about it like bubbles in a jacuzzi. From the setting, to the delivery of the humor, to the mise en scene, to the occasionally devastating performances, the play feels well looked after and committed to. It keeps you planted firmly in seat, assured that reality, no matter how surreal, is happening in front of you.
Sam Leichter plays an excellent Brian. Whether deliberately or not, he seems to be channelling Eddie Izzard. His timbre of speech and faux-lackadaisical delivery are positively adroit and his portrayal of Brian’s internal conflict is imperiously nuanced. He squares off nicely against Brittany Proia as Sheila, who is able to be both the play’s soul of incorruptible goodness, and a flawed, conflicted, and put-upon human being all in her own right. Isobel McBride is endearingly lump-like as titular parsnip Joe, with occasional fanciful moments of normalcy that come off as intensely touching. Brian Nemiroff (Freddie), Amber Bodgeweicz (Pam) and Margaret Catov (Grace, Bri’s mother) form the gaggling mob of houseguests that brew the plays final kerfuffle. They are each strikingly and individually flawed, extra and unsolicited voices in a difficult conversation between Sheila and Brian, adding fog to the mist. They are integral to the play’s climactical caterwaul. Put simply, the cast are excellent.
I suppose what ‘Joe Egg’ boils down to is a debate. A debate taking place between the forces of quality of life and right to life. The debate, however, is not a dry, lifeless C-Span drudge, it is an animated, agonized, but incredibly funny and witty back and forth. No one character seems to wholly represent any one side, and no one is painted as being obviously wrong, or obviously the villain. The play is fair and full of comic flair, made all the more remarkable by its age. For a play roughly fifty years old it feels surprisingly current. True, many of its cultural references are mired in the time and place, and I’m certain a fair few of them fly over the heads of a 21st Century American audience, but the piece’s core conflict is treated with a stark frankness that seems timeless. Perhaps that’s due to the text, with its complete unwillingness to cow-tow to molly-coddling and easy morals. Perhaps its due to the cast and crew of The Night Shift, who have obviously worked so well to give ‘Joe Egg’ a life beyond being a play of historical interest. Perhaps it’s both. Maybe it’s Maybelline. Whatever it is, it works, and it’s a shame this show only ran for the one weekend. It had the strength and tenacity to go well beyond that. A superlative showing all around.
‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’ ran from the 26th to the 28th of May. It was produced by ‘The Night Shift’ and ran at IRT Theatre. For more information about The Night Shift and their upcoming works, visit thenightshifttheatre.org.
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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