In this world premiere from Nalsey Tinberg at Main Street Theater, the last decade in the life of "Sprintze," the ultimate Jewish mother and Holocaust survivor (Luisa Amaral-Smith), is dutifully depicted as a domestic battle of wills between "Ma" and her equally stubborn "should be more Jewish" daughter Barrie (Lisa Thomas Morrison). Ma shuffles through life dispensing wisdom and advice to her professorial daughter, who, wouldn't ya know, resents it, although deep down inside, she's just like her. Funny, huh, how life works? Cancer, haunting WW II memories, and the meaning of God's judgment are some of the tantalizing subjects lightly painted with Tinberg's broad brush.
What an awful title for this two-character piece, although Tinberg's original title was just as bad: Christmas Babies. For, you see, both Ma and Barrie were born on Christmas Eve. Jewish and born on Christmas? Oy, such irony! That's how this play goes: no surprises, and heavy-handed. With Ma and Barrie in constant conflict and other characters talked about but unseen, the play, manipulative and artificial, becomes claustrophobic. You feel the walls of Main Street Theater closing in as you watch. Ma has never talked to Barrie about her young days during WW II, but when she's in the hospital for a blood clot in her leg and woozy from the drugs, she has a sudden nightmarish vision of being some sort of medical experiment in the death camp, yet this gut-wrenching memory is dropped as quickly as it's mentioned. Tinberg uses Ma's memories as convenient clubs. Oh, sure, they argue, laugh a little, butt heads in conflict, and each of Barrie's birthdays during the decade is celebrated with its own cake (hence, that title), but these two are so alike there's no drama in their story. The whole thing's too schematic.
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Although there's little life in the play, there's great animation in the actors. Amaral-Smith, like MGM's Mary Astor, has a lock on playing mothers. Give her a maternal role, let her loose, and stand back -- A Catered Affair, Awake and Sing!, Anna in the Tropics would've been much poorer without her superlative interpretations. She inhabits Ma with a lioness's fervor, a bubbellah's cheek-pinching cuteness, and the stony resolve of a piece of granite from Mount Sinai. She gives Ma more life than the author gives her. As a character, Barrie is too often whiny and disagreeable -- our heart belongs to Mama -- but Morrison does the impossible and softens her up. She has distinctive line readings that come straight from the Bronx's Grand Concourse. Barrie and her struggles with Ma are never as meaningful as Tinberg assumes, but Morrison keeps our attention riveted.
Some plays are born to be vehicles for the actors. Amaral-Smith and Morrison, with help from director Steve Garfinkle, use Tinberg's play as if driving at the Indianapolis 500.
Tinberg's world premiere runs through November 27 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd. Order tickets online at www.mainstreettheater.com or call 713-524-6706.