The hardest-working actors currently appearing on any Houston stage can be witnessed full gallop at Main Street Theater in Heidi Schreck's regional premiere of Grand Concourse (2014). They pull out all the stops to turn this wan drama into something interesting. Except for a shadowy blow-job scene, this play could be another ordinary after-school TV special.
This kitchen-sink drama – with real kitchen sink and real running water – is stuck somewhere in the '50s. Not the “good” '50s, when we had Philco Television Playhouse, Westinghouse Studio One Hour, Goodyear Theatre and live television shows written by Paddy Chayefsky, Horton Foote and Gore Vidal. It was quite a feast back then. No, this throwback is pale imitation, like Clifford Odets behind a veil, a heavy heavy veil.
Schreck is an off-Broadway Obie Award-winning actor and writer, but her writing in this work is trampled under her rampant social consciousness and inability to write a convincing dramatic arc about people we care about. When we are more mesmerized by characters chopping vegetables in a church soup kitchen than by what those characters say when chopping vegetables, something's terribly off. And chop they do, and cook scrambled eggs, and mop the floor, and wipe down the kitchen table, and stir the soup, and rush about with spray bottles of disinfectant. This intensive labor becomes more intriguing than what they say to each other.
The hustle and bustle is wondrously fetching (remember Stages' more brutal companion piece, My Mañana Comes, set in a restaurant kitchen?). But even when stagehands dressed in aprons (a clever flourish from director Rachel H. Dickson) re-set the stage during blackouts, these scenes are filled with more tension than the entire intermissionless play. Where will they stash that cutting board? What will they do with that huge industrial-size aluminum soup pot? And all those sharp kitchen knives? To paraphrase Chekhov's famous theater rule: If you introduce a knife in Act I, it better be used in Act III. Knives are flashed nonstop, but not for any action Chekhov might approve.
Sister Shelley (Callina Situka) suffers from a crisis of faith of some indeterminate sort. She runs the soup kitchen at the unnamed Catholic church on Grand Concourse Boulevard in the Bronx. Strong and resilient, she's a no-nonsense nun, dispensing tough love while ladling. But we know she's in trouble because she times her prayers by the microwave clock. She's building up to five minutes, God forbid, but we only see her shorter invocations. We're thankful for that.
Waif teen Emma (Morgan Starr) wafts into the kitchen to volunteer. She's a very lost child, probably dying of leukemia and estranged from home, and her hair has rainbow-tinged ends. That should set off alarms, but Shelley needs the help. She runs a tight ship, and there are more destitute men to be fed than ever.
At first sight of hunky handyman Oscar (Herman Gambhir), a transplant from the Dominican Republic trying to make a go of it in NYC, Emma goes into overdrive. Though he insists he has a girlfriend, her temptation is mighty tempting. He compares her to Iris, Greek goddess of the rainbow. Oh, dear. How in hell would this randy lunkhead know that? This isn't the first time we begin to squirm. What else lies in store from Schreck? Oscar eyes Emma while he eats a roast beef sandwich, and we just know she's next on the menu. But first, she'll take a bite out of him.
Frog (Rutherford Cravens), the resident derelict, shambles about in a drug/alcohol stupor, sweet and lovable in his on-again, off-again med regimen, paranoid, mildly harmless, selling stale jokes at a quarter a pop. You'd think Shelley would have more sense than to have him anywhere near those Ginsu knives.
Amid the prayers, the confessions and the endless exposition, the play plods on, but never travels forward. The drama's stuffed with complications, secrets, personal revelations, but it galumphs along replete with filler. Things happen between scenes that should be dramatized, and some things that are dramatized should best be left unseen.
Riding in to save the day, the acting quartet achieves marvels unlike anything since D.W. Griffith's last-minute rescues. That the accomplished four arrive too late to save the play is not their fault.
Situka has a difficult role to pull off, for Shelley's the sensible one, the norm. It's this everyday quality that Situka effortlessly assumes. We want her to be our boss, too. If she were a Catholic school teacher, you know instinctively she'd never rap your knuckles with a ruler. She persuades with reason, intellect, kindness and gentle faith. Her character goes through changes, off stage mostly, without a hint of help from Schreck, but Situka imbues Shelley with a beatific calm, a sense of rightness and sweep of justice. Her complete reversal at the end is unprepared for, but Situka pulls it off by sheer force of abiding fortitude.
Was Herman Gambhir born in a trunk in Pocatello, Idaho? He's a natural for the stage with his easygoing manner and sexy swagger. He's at home in front of the footlights, without a false move. He doesn't have much to do here except ping-pong between offstage fiancée Rosa and in-his-crotch Emma, but he does it with effervescent charm and unassuming naiveté.
Meanwhile, Cravens eats scenery for breakfast, for which we're always grateful. He shows the fun of acting. Born in another era, he'd have made a lucrative career in golden age Hollywood, along the likes of Lynne Overman, Akim Tamiroff, Eugene Pallette and Thomas Mitchell. He was born to act, and you can't keep your eyes off him. He's a grand scene-stealer, sly and stealthy, digging deep into his character but always keeping a gimlet eye turned toward us, who revel in his playacting. Schreck should contribute to whatever actor's pension fund he might have, for he brings more life into this role than she blithely offers.
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Although my beloved Uncle Jack, born in hard-scrabble Pennsylvania but who moved to NYC when he was a teenager, had more of an authentic Bronx accent than Starr, she's saddled with the most difficult role to pull off. Emma's a mess. In every one of her scenes, she's psychotic, empathetic, needy, pitiable, a gold digger, insipid and an inveterate liar. You don't know what to believe about her, but Starr, minus the faux accent that comes and goes, gives her a shimmering litheness, and that goes a long way, believe me, for a character who's written so out of focus.
Torsten Lewis's ultra-realistic set design would bring tears of joy to David Belasco; Deborah L. Anderson's costumes, especially Frog's grimy T-shirt that reads “100 percent All-American Premium Deliciousness,” are aptly utilitarian; and Eric L. Marsh's lighting conjures the harsh overhead fluorescence that one finds in a church basement.
The reality of place is amply displayed in Grand Concourse. Now, if only the playwright would display such truth.
Grand Concourse continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through April 30 at 2540 Times Boulevard. For information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $36 to $45.