6/2/2019    MORNINGSIDE                OnStage Atlanta         

****  ( B+ )  


(Bias Alert:  I have worked with -- and enjoy the company of -- playwright Topher Payne, so my bias-tinted glasses may be on for this one.  And more of this essay than I care to admit is plagiarized from my review of Georgia Ensemble's 2017 premier production of this play, which was indeed one of my favorites of the year)

There's a decent play hidden somewhere in the history of Atlanta's Morningside suburb, a history filled with dramatic rises and falls and not a few ironies.  According to Wikipedia, the area was once owned by the Ku Klux Klan, who eventually sold it to Jewish developers.  It has gone through depression, gentrification, and even endured proximity to an infamous red light district (Cheshire Bridge Road, for those keeping score, or just wishing to score).

Today it is an unusual melting pot of the really really rich, the really really poor, the really really conservative, and the really really progressive.  In 2013, a City Council Resolution to "sanitize" the area was opposed by a loose coalition of "gays, strippers, and real estate interests."

Yes, the story of Morningside would make a compelling and original piece of theatrical Atlanta History.

Topher Payne's exquisite and entertaining  Morningside is NOT that play.

Instead, it is a vibrant chamber piece, a collection of intimately detailed characters who keep secrets, plan parties, vent grudges, drink champagne, and, above all, dish about whoever is not in the room.  And it is grounded with moving revelations, trenchant self-discoveries, drunken miscommunications, and, above all, a veritable symphony of the sort of clever and lyrical dialogue Mr. Payne excels at (Wallows in?  Ends Sentences prepositions with?).

And it is a showcase for Atlanta Talent of the Female Kind, boasting a cast of nine of the most compellingly likeable performers ever to don a party frock.

So, Devyn Driscoll is having a baby.  Her mother, Grace is throwing a Baby Shower.  Well, more accurately, Grace's sisters, Louise and Roxanne, and her friend-and-neighbor, Felicia, seem to doing the heavy lifting, since Grace is upstairs, hip deep in whatever bottle she can find in her hands -- you see, her marriage of 37 years fell apart a little too recently for comfort, and WHAT KIND OF DISASTER WILL THIS PARTY BECOME?

Fortunately for us, the BEST kind of disaster!

You see, just to be safe, Aunt Louise has "disinvited" most of the guests, and neglected to tell Grace.  Devyn's estranged sister, Clancy, MAY actually show up with a ten-page menu of festering grudges and old complaints.  Devyn's "friend" from work, Sophie, isn't a friend, so much as a replacement.  Her out-of-the-closet "friend" from the neighborhood, Mackenzie, has a few issues of her own. And what party would be complete with a "crasher," in this case, Devyn and Sophie's office manager, Elinor, who overdresses to the point of poignancy.

It would be easy to "write off" Mr. Payne's effort as just an exercise in "Mix nine women with alcohol and see what happens," and, indeed, he cites "Twelve Angry Men" as an inspiration for this idea.  But this play is too well-crafted, these characters too well-defined for such a slapdash, improv-based approach.  It is obvious that all nine character were given well-defined arcs that intersect and collide at "just the right moment", that resolutions are fairly foreshadowed, even inspired, and that the long(ish) running time is well-mitigated by depth of design and construction.

And it is especially evident that Mr. Payne has created nine seemingly selfish, narcissistic, thoroughly unpleasant women, and made us not only LIKE them all, but ADORE them all.  Not to belittle his other recent work, but I think this may be his best-constructed play to date.

Not to play Devil's Advocate, but OnStage Atlanta's cast does not have the breathless bravura that characterized GET's stunning ensemble.   It's not that anyone's bad -- they're all excellent, all well-cast, all pushing all the "right buttons" to create compelling characters.   But they do lack a certain "oomph" -- that indefinable energy that makes a play float like butterfly.  This cast, in truth, does not "sink," but in too many cases, easy (rather than inspired) choices are made, and, given the occasional "name fumble," I suspect I saw a post-exhausting-tech-week performance one or two run-throughs shy of that elusive skyrocketing jet-engine that should be driving this script.

I repeat, no one gives a bad performance, (in fact, everyone has more than a few singularly outstanding moments), but something, at least for me, did not quite gel into an ensemble.

At the center Patty Mosley Nelson is Grace, staggering through the play with a blowsy ease that just challenges everyone to challenge her.  And they do!  She runs the gamut of outrageousness and runs the gauntlet of every-tongue-turned-against-her to emerge, I suppose, enjoying a victory.  Of sorts.

Lynn Grace and Bobbie Elzey are marvelous as Grace's sisters, in town for just the day, emotional baggage probably unpacked before physical baggage.  Louise is a fussy Texas matron, the sort of sibling who enjoys taking control and passing judgment.  Roxanne is a successful Manhattan woman and artist, not going gently into those later years, carefully cultivating a persona of excess and dissoluteness to hide {DEFINITELY deleted by the Spoiler Police}.  Although Felicia (the exquisitely elegant Marquelle Young) doesn't get a flashy back-story like the Bouchard sisters, she nevertheless grounds a lot of the over-top-top bitchiness with a resolute calmness that is sincere and affecting.

As for the "younger generation, Kate Ash is Devyn, completely oblivious to how her selfish bitchiness "plays" to her "friends" and kinfolk.  (Although it's said to another character, the line " I need you to dial your personality back about 20% until I have a little less to do, okay?" could easily apply to her.)  Hers is the most problematic performance for me:  She hides her vulnerability a little too well, so we see only the "you're not a nice person" crabbiness that keeps us from the begrudging affection we need to really engage with her story.  It doesn't help that she seems actor-uncomfortable with her padded dress more than pregnant-mom-uncomfortable, and misses a lot of physical comedy opportunities.  

On the other hand, Rylee Bunton is wonderful as Devyn's sister, Clancy --  Ms. Bunton is spectacular, a force of nature, a dynamo of "hip and cool" hiding an interior of gooey self-doubt and a history of little-sister demoralization.  Jillian Walzer brings an attaché-case-full of formidable comic skills to bear as Sophie, the sort of "friend" who consoles you to your face as she's carving out your heart from the back, and making you not even "notice" the stabbing.  And Laurie Winkel is a total joy as Mackenzie, convincing as that childhood friend who regrets the years that have added distance to the friendship.  And, as the bull-in-the-china-shop crasher (Elinor), Lory Cox chews up the scenery, spits it out, and makes us like the result -- creating that character we ALWAYS avoid at parties, but who also seems to be more "aware" than all the snippy little buzzy-bees in her charge.

Of course, none of this would have worked without the inestimable contribution of director Cathe Hall Payne.  She perfectly juggles nine angry balls of toxic character arc, and keeps the story flowing through both occasional calm and frequent storm. It's futile to try to judge where the "lines of demarcation" reside when talking about the work of playwright, director, and cast, as lines probably do not (and should not) exist.  Needless to say, my affection for these characters and their stories is the result of the work of not-too-many "cooks in the kitchen," and I daresay they were all necessary for the savory soup that poured out.

To take another foray into Quibble-Stan, another aspect that is a "near miss" for me is the technical side.  Set Designer Barry West has created a nice-looking living room, but it looks more suburban Decatur than elegant Morningside.  Perhaps the new OnStage Atlanta Venue is too small to accommodate a set that would truly evoke a wealthy house, but this cramped space does indeed come (semi-sorta) close.  Tom Gillespie lighting is mostly on point with the exception of a (barely noticeable) "cool" spot dead center.  Also, Elinor's "Bridesmaid" gown is supposed to be a comic highlight, an over-the top frou-frou confection that would look silly anywhere.  Here, it is actually attractive -- it looks too good, and would not look out of place at any evening cocktail hour, or a play opening.  Essentially, it is so well-done it kills the joke.  And that "pregnant dress" worn by Devyn looks far too unnatural to me.

Topher Payne has once again proven that he is a contemporary master of creating roles for women, especially roles for women "of an age" usually ignored by Hollywood (and young playwrights).  He remains a steadfast creature of Atlanta Theatre and Atlanta itself (is there a more "Atlanta" neighborhood than Morningside?  Well, yeah, I suppose every Atlanta neighborhood is distinct in its own Atlanta way, and Atlanta can almost be defined by its eclectic amalgam of suburban sprawl, high-rent gentrification, and vividly alive urban life).

This is the second production of this play I've seen, and I daresay, my reaction would have been more ecstatic if I had missed that GET production a short 18 months ago.  Still, the virtues of the script are here, and the very real talents of the OSA cast bring it to life in a way that does it complete justice.  Topher Payne's Morningside is a delightful, exquisitely crafted serio-comedy (and even that description falls short, but labelers gotta label) that deserves a long life both in Atlanta and across the country.  OnStage Atlanta is to be commended for giving the play a production that will be long remembered.
            -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy    #OSAMorningside)


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