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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Grand Concourse is Paved with Good Intentions

Posted By on Wed, Jul 20, 2016 at 8:30 AM

Cathleen Riddley as Shelley, Caleb Cabrera as Oscar - PAK HAN
  • Pak Han
  • Cathleen Riddley as Shelley, Caleb Cabrera as Oscar
How do you solve a problem like Emma? She’s self-centered, callow, and dishonest. When she volunteers at a church soup kitchen that Shelley runs, we feel, perhaps, there’s hope for her yet. Two hours later, Grand Concourse has taken great pains to prove us wrong. Whatever youthful folly mars her common sense at the beginning of the play repeatedly reaffirms its place in her consciousness until the bitter end. In fact, every character on stage expresses the desire to do good and then proceeds to behave badly.

Emma’s foil throughout is Shelley, aka Sister Shelley, a plainclothes nun currently experiencing a crisis of faith. She’s lost patience with serving the homeless men who fail to get sober or change their lives. At first, she is glad to have Emma’s help in the kitchen: she’s a welcome distraction. Most volunteers quit after the first day but Emma keeps coming back. After dropping out of college, she’s nineteen, drifting and aimless. Inside the kitchen, Shelley indoctrinates Emma in the routines of chopping vegetables for the daily pot of lunch soup and serving it up to those in need. Another employee named Oscar, the church’s dogsbody, flirts with Emma. She, in turn, flirts back ruthlessly, unsettling him and the ecosystem of established relationships.

The protagonist of Kenneth Lonergan’s film Margaret is a close analog to Emma. The movie scrutinizes a careless teenage girl who does nothing but cause harm. Some of her bad behavior seems inadvertent; some of it stems from her willfulness. Regardless, Lonergan provides Margaret with a coherent background and locates her troubled psyche within the context of her family. The playwright here, Heidi Schreck, omits the presence of an origin story and probable cause. She only creates an amoral cypher who is an expert at manipulation who blasts away her thoughtlessness by playing Sleater-Kinney at maximum volume.
click to enlarge Caleb Cabrera as Oscar, Megan Trout as Emma - PAK HAN
  • Pak Han
  • Caleb Cabrera as Oscar, Megan Trout as Emma

It’s no wonder then that the stellar actress and Shotgun company member Megan Trout can’t bring Emma to life. In the first act, she’s playing the part of a liar who can’t come up with much of a rationale, either for herself or the audience, for her deception. Trout is freed up in the second act when Shelley discovers the truth about her, but by then Emma is a lost cause. It may just be that Trout was miscast. She’s playing a young woman with the psyche of a damaged girl, and the part begs for something untamed, a natural impetuosity. You can feel Trout acting out an idea of that girl, but not a particular girl, as if she’s resisting the worst in Emma and wants to find some redeemable quality there when the script doesn’t provide her with one.

There are similar problems with the conception of Shelley. Middle-aged and living with her cat Pumpkin, she has reached her limits with her religious life at the soup kitchen. She prays to God by setting a microwave timer because she can barely keep her belief alive. When Emma enters into her life, it looks like she could be a catalyst to restore her wavering faith. The opposite turns out to be true. Her narrative arc makes more sense because Schreck fills in the contours of Shelley’s life and background. But she also writes in character quirks that don’t add up dramatically, either for Shelley or the play in its entirety.
Kevin Clarke as Frog, Cathleen Riddley as Shelley, Megan Trout as Emma, Caleb Cabrera as Oscar - PAK HAN
  • Pak Han
  • Kevin Clarke as Frog, Cathleen Riddley as Shelley, Megan Trout as Emma, Caleb Cabrera as Oscar
In one scene, a parishioner donates a box of eggplants for the soup. Shelley, who presumably has been in charge of the kitchen for several years, has no idea what to do with that purple vegetable. In all those years of cooking and shopping, it isn’t credible that she’s never served eggplant before. It’s a small but puzzling moment, and there are several like that, especially in the hapless first act, that lead nowhere. It’s as if the playwright keeps placing the metaphorical gun in plain sight and then never has anyone pull the trigger. Why is it there in the first place if it serves no purpose in the play?

The second act includes a surprising turn that is tonally off from what’s come before. It’s an emotional explosion inside of a didactic and cerebrally told story. The shocking revelation doesn’t work as a catharsis because the audience is simply unprepared for it. Shelley’s final monologue contains the most incantatory language of the play. Cathleen Riddley delivers it precisely and movingly but she’s speaking in a vacuum. If only she’d exorcised her demon earlier, the playwright might have discovered a more interesting antagonist in her new life without faith and devoid of her good works.

Grand Concourse, Through August 14, at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley, 510-841-6500.

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