Anthony J. Piccione
- New York City Critic
“What is a masterpiece?”
This is a question posed – from a janitor to an artist – during one scene of the latest work by playwright Gina Femia. Indeed, as I arrived at the 14th Street Y to see the play We Are a Masterpiece, I found myself wondering how this title could relate to a play with some very heavy subject matter. Yet that question is easily lost on me by the time is answered, as I found myself deeply moved after just the first half of the play was complete.
The core subject matter of the play – dealing with AIDS in the 1980s – is a familiar one in American drama, to be sure. Yet what sets this play apart is the fact that it’s set primarily in the early-80s, back when very little was known about the disease. Even nurses and doctors had hardly a clue; they merely referred to it as “the gay cancer”. More than just that, however, the play tells a story of death, friendship, and coping with life and with loss, as it hones in on its characters in a very human and in-depth manner, as the plot rotates from character to character, weaving together and ultimately building toward a powerful climax.
The production – which is wonderfully directed by DeLisa M. White – is staged in a beautifully lit atmosphere, with a purple lighting background that served the tone of the overall play well. The many set pieces included also perfectly capture the scenery of each scene. Indeed, it’s probably one of the few indie productions I’ve reviewed where I can say that there’s plenty to be appreciated, in terms of set design, which I find often tends to be quite minimalistic for many other shows.
From the beginning of the play, Chad Anthony Miller shows a sober and somber personality in his very fine portrayal of Ryan, who starts the play by reflecting on the past – the play’s present – in 2017. From then onward, Ben Schnickel shines with his particularly poignant performance as John, who during a monologue toward the climax – in particular – delivers one of the finest performances I’ve seen thus far in the year. Heather E. Cunningham gradually becomes more and more emotionally strong over the course of her performance as Joan, while Ric Sechrest displays a warm and friendly presence in the role of Tom. The cast is rounded out by Pilar Gonzalez (Lisa/Annie), Sam Heldt (Charles/Greg/Gerald), Sara Thigpen (Shelly/Linda), and Matthew Trumbull (Father Jerome).
So far in 2018, I’ve reviewed quite a fair amount of excellent indie theatre productions. I feel hard-pressed to find one that’s brought me as close to tears as this one has. While it takes some time for the story to build up, as I’ve said, the last few scenes of the play – which I will not spoil here – are among the most powerful I’ve seen in recent productions, and are ones that still leave me feeling sad for the characters, even as I write the review. If you get the chance to see it during its final performances, be sure to do so, as it’s easily among my top shows of 2018 thus far.
“We Are a Masterpiece” – presented by Retro Productions – runs at the 14th Street Y Theatre from April 7th to 21st. For more information, please visit www.retroproductions.org.