Category: Archive

Theater Review Acting overshadows weak drama

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

SOME VOICES, by Joe Penhall. Directed by Frank Pugliese. Featuring Jamie Harris, Ana Reeder, David Thornton, Mitchell McGuire, Max Davis. The New Group of the Theater at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th St. Through Feb. 6.

Barely eight seasons old, director Scott Elliott’s The New Group has earned a solid reputation for its off-Broadway productions of new plays, with particular emphasis on the work of British authors, including writer and filmmaker Mike Leigh, whose "Ecstasy" provided the organization with a major hit, and whose gritty "Goose-Pimples" proved nearly as successful.

The New Group has returned with the American debut of Joe Penhall’s "Some Voices," which was first seen at London’s Royal Court Theatre, winning the playwright the 1995 John Whiting Award.

The excellent production standard established by The New Group has often been said to have papered over some of the gaps in the plays they’ve chosen to produce, which once again seems to be the case with Penhall’s play, his first produced work.

Ray, Penhall’s young protagonist, gentle by nature, but very probably schizophrenic, has been released from a London mental hospital and placed in the custody of his older brother, Pete, who runs a small West London restaurant inherited from the siblings’ deceased parents.

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Performed in 18 brief scenes, Penhall’s play, as directed by Frank Pugliese, peregrinates through its subject matter in a manner nearly as desultory as that in which the confused, guileless Ray moves through his first days away from the institution.

"Some Voices," the title of which refers to the voices the innocent young Londoner hears in his head at times of stress, is a curiously unformed, unresolved fragment of dramatic literature, resembling an early draft or perhaps a work-in-progress.

What makes it truly worth seeing is the fine, emphatic work turned in by Pugliese’s strong, five-actor cast, the members of which combine expertly to illuminate the dysfunctional world playwright Penhall has only cursorily filled in.

Two of Penhall’s characters are Irish. Laura, a Limerick girl, pregnant and lost in London, is played with feeling and clarity by Ana Reeder, while Dave, a Belfast bully with a sadistic streak, is rendered with a sense of genuine menace by the powerful David Thornton, whose participation is all the more remarkable for the actor’s having come into the production shortly before the preview period began.

As Ives, an elderly mental patient who escaped shortly after Ray was released, Mitchell McGuire breathes at least a modicum of sense into a sketchy role that might have come across as pure rant.

The heart of the play, of course, is the give and take between the brothers, and here Pugliese and The New Group have been extremely fortunate. As Pete, Max Davis, who made a memorable contribution to the Group’s staging of "Goose-Pimples" two seasons ago, strikes a perfect blend of frustration and concern in dealing with his troubled younger brother, at the same time being entirely credible as the flagging force behind the foundering eatery with which he’s been saddled.

The entire production of this flawed play, if there were no other strengths at all, would be justified by the extraordinarily insightful, richly inventive work being done by Jamie Harris as the hapless, rather childlike, Ray.

Harris, the youngest of the three sons of Limerick-born actor Richard Harris, invests Ray with a naive sweetness that cuts against the clichés so often structured into portraits of the mentally troubled, particularly at the hands of young, relatively inexperienced performers.

The actor balances Ray’s intensity of concentration with his sporadically faltering attention span with dazzling skill, just as he details the character’s lapses in logic as clearly as he fleshes out his deluded confidence in his ability to cope with the rude world into which he has so summarily thrust.

Lean to the point of near-scrawniness, Harris creates a portrait that seems made up more or less entirely of elbows and acute angles, at times capped with a visual vacancy you’re likely to encounter within a block of the theater, in any direction you might choose to travel.

This is precisely the sort of performance awards for off-Broadway theater were created.

The New Group has probably fielded better plays than "Some Voices," but it’s unlikely they’ve ever had a stronger cast.

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