By Charles J. Morgan
The Minstrel Players of Northport, now “under new management,” opened last Saturday, Oct. 24, with its 4th annual original play festival, “Back to the Zone.”
A panorama of seven short, one-act plays in the style of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone,” it showed the sure hand of Evan Donnellon, the Minstrel’s new executive producer.
In “Death Here” by Steven Gianturco, the figure of Death, played by John Leone, black hood and plastic scythe, gets a phone call announcing the arrival of another deceased, Gil Joe Lesko, who arrives “early.” A madcap dialog ensues between the two. Three parts of standard eschatology’s four divisions rapidly envelopes their trigger-tongued discourse: Heaven, Hell, Death … missing was Punishment. In fact Lesko manages to in the “argument” about the afterlife. Total resolution … to be seen.
Leone is overpowering in his role; the overworked office worker, constantly pushed to get more paperwork done, handle files and phone calls. His projection was excellent. Lesko discharged his part with integrity. He is possessed of a truly theatrical face, reminiscent of the elder Paul Guilfoyle with a touch of Harry Langdon.
“Isabelle” by Ceara Lee Taylor is a two-character effort featuring Tricia Ieronimo in the title role and Brian Hartwig as boyfriend Michael. The two are on a park bench reminiscing about old times like old lovers until it is realized that one of them is long dead. This is a vignette literarily influenced by James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Ieronimo is competent and Hartwig is consistent in characterization.
“Baby Monitor” by Ray Palen is a three-character play with Mark Swinson and Stephanie Leinoff as husband and wife Rick and Amy. They have purchased an electronic “baby monitor,” presumably to “baby sit” their newborn. Later Amy is convinced extra-terrestrials are being introduced through the monitor. They call in a psychic. Here enters Roseanne Baldanza as Thaniel. Baldanza is outstanding with deadpan pseudo-mystical gestures, a haunting voice and extra precise timing … a serio-comic role played to the hilt.
“Reset” by Jerry Eitel features Paul Graf as Man, Christine Sullivan as Woman and Michael and Olivia Puglisi as Boy and Girl. John Wolf crashes on as Gangster. The thesis of the play is that Man and Woman have no idea of their identity; they do not know even their names or whereabouts. Only later the two children provide a rationale for their existence. Graf projects well and is almost Hamlet-like in his groping for reality. Sullivan is all charm, but neither of them can break the closeted psyches until the children come on stage. They help the two become real. The kids’ delivery was a tad recitative, but they were obviously at home on the bards. Wolf, in a loud pin-striped suit and armed is the oppressive, arrogant hood demanding to know his identity. He too is “realized” by the kids.
A late-hours, closing time barroom is the setting for “Deathless” by Evan Donnellan, the heaviest of the seven. A character billed only as Stranger enters looking for just one more drink. The actor is Carl Nehring, and his tour de force about being deathless, unable to die, is a monument to skilled acting, articulate in form and consistent in delivery. The tired, bored bartender is Lou Lentino. He is the perfect foil for Nehring’s diatribe. Lentino understates the role with precision. The interfacing of the two is the armature of the show, and it is no less than riveting. Even the one word “God!” spoken during the blackout unravels the thesis penetratingly. It was a truly captivating theatrical experience.
“The Waiting Room” by Dave Buscema features two characters here in neat business suits — Paul Graf as Mr. Lanes and Bob Oliver as Man but who acts as Lanes’ conscience. Lanes is waiting to be called into the boss’s office to hear of his much sought after promotion up the corporate ladder. Oliver delivers a scathing, but soft rundown of Lanes’ past peccadilloes as well as his cheating and hubris. Graf does the rendition drill quite well. He displays disbelief, insult, anger and eventually self-righteousness with plasticity. Oliver handles the role of unerring conscience with icy persistence. Lanes is called in as his wife Amy, played by Christine Sullivan, enters. In his arms they both face a prosperous future as Oliver simply glowers.
In “The Cook Book or the Cupcake Recipe” by Jordan Hue, four characters arrive at an unexplainably messy old house intent on a weekend of fun. They are Jes Almeida as Carly, Emily Dowdell as Devon, Christina Corsaro as Hope and Brian Hartwig as Walter. Later Carl Nehring will appear as Bill. As they are unpacking, Devon finds what looks like an ancient cookbook but is really a grimoire, a textbook of magic. Its effect on all of them is to repack and get out of there. A blackout is used here to express passage of time. With lights up, one of them is close to newly arrived Bill as they pore over the dusty grimoire. All acting in this performance was first rate. Special kudos go to Emily Dowdell who developed Devon as real, individuated and dominant with a controlled approach that made her outstanding.
Undoubtedly, the persistent theme of death was notably seen in practically all of the seven. One asks was this a reflection of the secular humanist culture in which we find ourselves, or was it just the deliberate objective of the new, young playwrights?
The Minstrel Players will present “Back to the Zone” at Trinity Episcopal Church’s Houghton Hall, 130 Main St., Northport, on Nov. 1 at 3 p.m., Nov. 7 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 8 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 adults, $15 seniors and children under 12. For more information, call 516-557-1207 or visit www.minstrelplayers.org.