Playful Substance Theater Company-Pithy Party-conclusion

Reviews by Jen Bush

Playful Substance, one of NY’s premiere indie arts organizations known for fostering emerging writers, went “retro” and presented a telethon fundraising event of three programs. Writer-at-large, JEN BUSH, covered the event. This is Part VI

Review by Jen Bush-12/7/21

Artists have a voice, a vision and a story to tell through mediums such as art, music and theater. What they need is an opportunity. Playful substance provides those crucial opportunities as well as support to artists. This is what Playful Substance is all about in their own words:

Playful Substance is a New York based theater company dedicated to fostering new works through our Writers Groups, developmental workshops, community events and fully staged productions. We believe that lifelong artist development, work-life balance, and the vitality of an inclusive creative space are integral to the artist’s practice. “Playful Substance” is the mission; substantive work approached with joy, cooperation, sensitivity, and humor.

Their Pithy Party is an annual event putting Playful Substance’s writer’s groups in the spotlight with staged readings featuring excerpts of works in progress directed and read by company members and friends. This year’s event was roughly four hours long and showcased 10 writers, 10 directors and 30 cast members. The live performances were spread out over 3 seatings. The online performance featured bonus content such as artist interviews and a more in-depth look at Playful Substance.

A Special Episode

By Nick Steckman

Directed by Kaili Y. Turner

Cast: Matt C. Cass, Cristina Garcia Leon, Bree O’Connor, Rocco Spoon and Lauren Lindsey White

Why does a high-priced psychiatrist living in a N.Y.C brownstone with his family want to move to Portland to open a pottery store? It’s because he’s got a dark secret and his family is about to blow up his spot! Dr. Reynolds has been wildly inappropriate with several of his patients and his teenage daughter’s friend. Upon his return home, his family attempts to let him know that the cat is out of the bag. It’s difficult to get his attention but they finally confront him. At first he tries to deny it and then he acts like it’s no big deal. The result is a family blowout where loyalties are misplaced and the teenage daughter is the only one with any sense.

The dynamics of this family are at the paramount of dysfunction. Dr. Reynolds is a textbook narcissist. His overlooked and ill-treated wife is in blatant denial. His son tries to defend him. His daughter, who is the only levelheaded one is repulsed by him and seeks a logical navigation of this disgraceful situation.

This production has themes of familial dysfunction, denial, narcissism and addresses the contemporary hot button issue of sexual inappropriateness. It is tough subject matter to be intertwined with comedy, yet they pull it off. Keeping in mind that these are excerpts of works in progress, there was a bit of a hiccup with the use of audience participation cue cards. I think a pure light comedy would be better served with audience cue cards. This production might make you feel uncomfortable with relief from humorous moments sprinkled about. The emotional entertainment value derives from the jolting feeling of the incredulous nature of the characters and the narrative.

Pithy Party has shown that Bree O’Connor can take on a multitude of acting roles and accents with keen expertise. Rocco Spoon slathered on the sleeze with his egotistical portrayal of Dr. Reynolds. Lauren Lindsey did a great job of portraying the logical outraged and daughter. Matt C. Cass gave an emotionally charged performance as the loyal son. A Special Episode serves up sensitive subject matter in a contemporarily compelling manner.

Aaron Sorkin

By Donald Wollner

Directed by Amanda Faye Lacson

Cast: Cristina Garcia Leon and Lee Wilkof

We have all been panic stricken upon the knowledge that a computer document we have been working long and hard at has been erased. This is the kickoff event in Aaron Sorkin. The wife of a middle-aged couple has a meltdown complete with choice expletives when a letter she has been working on is accidentally deleted. Her cool as a cucumber husband is unaffected but supportive. He barely glances up from the paper he is reading while attempting to diffuse the situation with humor. A discussion about the banality of life in a pandemic shifts the wife’s emotions to sadness as she pines away for the past. She longs for the days when her husband used to hang out with Aaron Sorkin because that made him edgy.

This was one of the shortest yet funniest plays of the Pithy Party. The pairing of Ms. Leon and Mr. Wilkof was ideal. Her brilliant anxiety driven performance coupled with his deadpan rapid-fire delivery of hilarious one-liners was pure magic. This play was completely relatable touching on common and contemporary subjects. Kudos to Mr. Wollner whose finished product is sure to be funny and fabulous.

The Miss Piggy Social Club

By Stephanie Scott

Directed by Courtney Wetzel

Cast: Bree O’Connor and Cristina Garcia Leon

The year is 2016 and the election is in full force. This was one of the most politically divisive elections in history. It decimated the relationships of friends, families, and colleagues. Can a 20 year friendship rise above opposing political beliefs? That is just what The Miss Piggy Social Club seeks to discover.

Adela and Margaret have been friends for 20 years after meeting at a spa. They come from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds. Certainly not a deal breaker or a barrier to friendship. A polite and respectful conversation about the candidates quickly spirals out of control into ugliness. Their tongues become weapons of scathing words veering into regretful places.

This powerful production packed a wallop of drama. Similar conversations akin to the dialogue of these characters have likely taken place all across America in 2016. This play authentically demonstrated the sad commentary on fractured relationships due to political division.

Having been in multiple productions in Pithy Party, Ms. Leon and Ms. O’Connor have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can act and they can act well. They delivered the talents of the wordsmith with thoughtful conviction. You won’t want to join Miss Piggy’s Social Club, but you’ll want to see it.

Mish Mosh

By Laura Sisskin

Directed by Raphael Peraia

Cast: Helene Galek, Raphael Perahia, Yessenis Rivas, Marlon Quijije, Lee Wilkof and Donald Wollner

Holiday gatherings among family can bring about the most joyous times or the most contentious. In this comedy, a family and a neighbor have gathered together to celebrate the Jewish new year called Rosh Hoshana. Alan invites his estranged brother Ralph to the celebration. Ralph is orthodox which is a stricter form of Judaism and Alan is more secular. They were estranged due to these opposing views. We witness an undercurrent of tension and resentment between the two brothers as Ralph makes several passive aggressive comments about Alan’s level of observance throughout the play.

As the scene progresses, various family members carry out traditions related to the holiday. Alan’s wife and daughter read an initial prayer. Ralph is adamant about strict adherence to the traditions. He insists that everyone wash their hands as part of the holiday ritual. Ralph is concerned with God’s opinion about blowing out candles while Alan is more concerned about his house burning down if they’re not blown out. The very upbeat and complimentary neighbor, who is a former priest is just happy to be among the guests.

Oy vey, what a play! The central themes of this production are family, sibling rivalry and Judaism. There is a great deal of humor to be found in this nicely written and well directed play. For a work in progress, it was well developed. The subject matter was highly relatable. Most families have that one meshuga member who ruffles the feathers of the others. The actors suited their parts well. The incomparable and thoroughly professional Mr. Wilkof was delightful as Alan. What a mench! Mr. Wollner didn’t futz around with his wonderful portrayal of Ralph, a brother dedicated to his faith. Mr. Quijije relieved much of the familial tensions with his zealously positive portrayal of the neighbor. The entire cast was wonderful. I say mazel tov to this fine production. Shlep on over to see it when it’s complete.

(Dear reader, I couldn’t resist looking up some Yiddish terms and throwing them into the review. Their meanings are below.)

Oy Vey-akin to oh no!

Meshuga-crazy

Mench-good person

Futz-mess around

Mazel Tov-good luck

Shlep-carry oneself

Mr. and Mrs. Garbo

By Raphael Perahia

Director-Dan Renkin

Cast: Yessenia Rivas and Raphael Perahia

If you like your martinis shaken not stirred, you might like Mr. and Mrs. Garbo. It has espionage, marital conflict and even attempted murder.

Mr. Garbo is a Spanish double agent on a super-secret mission in London. His wife accompanied him to London. She is miserable and wants to return home. She is determined to attend an anniversary party being given that evening. Dignitaries and embassy officials will be present at this affair. The problem is Mrs. Garbo’s attendance at the party poses a threat to the mission and to the couple’s very existence. An intense argument ensues. Mr. Garbo becomes controlling and vindictive. Mrs. Garbo unflinchingly stands her ground. It’s the spy who loves me not.

This well penned play is captivating not only for its subject matter but because it is based on the true story of Spanish double agent Juan Pujol Garcia. The actors’ authentic interpretation of the script expertly portrayed the tension and drama of the narrative. Ms. Rivas gave a compelling performance of a woman on the edge willing to go to disturbing lengths to get her way. Mr. Perahia was the delightful surprise of the evening. It was a cunning move to put this play at the end of the run. Mr. Perahia served as co-host for this marathon of one-acts in three parts. Both hosts were sweet, adorable, charming, insanely likeable, and funny. By the end of Pithy Party, you felt bonded with them. Out of nowhere, Mr. Perahia’s acting chops materialized in full force. It was a real Jekyll and Hyde maneuver. There was no hint of the mild-mannered co-host. There was an evil undercurrent in his portrayal that put a bad taste in the audience’s mouth. Job well done all around! I spy a hit show in the making.

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