Contemporary Theatre of Dallas
Directed by Dean Nolan
Scenic Design – Rodney Dobbs
Costume Design – Clare Kapusta
Sound Design – Rich Frohlich
Light Design – Kenneth Farnesworth
Props Design – Jen Gilson-Gilliam
Dialect Coach – Anne Schilling
Production Stage Manager – Zoelyn Copeland
Assistant Stage Manager – Bonnie Hanvey
Cello Music by Calum Ingram
Efraim – Jake Buchanan
Sarah – Marianne Galloway
Pete – Ian Ferguson
Gita – Nancy Sherrard
Moishe – Ben Westfried
Lt. Bishara – Edward Treminio
Photography by Emily Piepenbrink
Reviewed Performance 11/23/2013
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Breaking up is hard to do. So is coming out. When it’s about leaving your family, your culture and your life-long belief system the agony is overwhelming. And surprisingly hilarious!
Division Avenue is a new comedic drama by Dallas native, Miki Bone, premiering regionally at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. The play opened earlier this year at Midtown International Theatre Festival in New York and won Outstanding New Play, Best Director, and Outstanding Production of a Play. CTD brought NYC Director Dean Nolen to Dallas for this run and the quality shows.
Williamsburg is a Brooklyn neighborhood where Hasidic Jews, who migrated from Romania during World War II, mix closely with Italians, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, and lately the hipsters and urbanites from Manhattan. The Hasidim want to protect their purity and traditional way of life, especially from the hipsters and bicyclists. This is the background conflict for Bone’s play.
Moishe, elder in the Hasidic community, is suing the city to remove the cycle lanes on Division Avenue. He’s anxious about the cyclists’ influence on his community. While he’s focused on protecting the neighborhood, his son, Ephraim, is trying to become part of the modern world and falls into a relationship with one of those cyclists, Sarah. Moishe engages the services of Pete, an attorney, who also happens to be Sarah’s gay roommate and Ephraim then tries to use Pete as an advisor on “coming out.” The story is rife with dramatic and comedic opportunity.
The production team created an effectively simple setting for this story. Rodney Dobbs designed a small turntable in three pie pieces so one setting could play forward while two could be dressed behind the wall. This allowed rapid switching between two different apartment scenes, a lawyer’s office, and a park scene. By placing a kitchen table in one, a couch in another, an office desk in the third and a simple park bench in the last, we saw a new scene with a fast turn of the turntable. Kenneth Farnesworth lit the active scenes brightly, dimmed them for the scene changes, and provided a few downstage spots for dramatic moments. Within those scene spaces, Jen Gilson-Gilliam placed props that well supported each setting to identify them at a glance.
Rich Frohlich provided a sound design that, aside from some fairly current preshow and intermission songs, was soft and non-distinct. I kept hearing feint sounds of city noises during the show, but they blended into the story whether intentionally or happenstance, and that alone may be the best compliment of a sound designer. The real soundtrack was a persistent solo cello, playing many variations throughout the show, written by Calum Ingram, a classically-trained singer/songwriter from Paisley, Scotland. It was unobtrusive, yet evoking in its soulful beauty.
Costumes by Clare Kapusta were important to help progress the arc of the story. The Romanian Jews wore traditional Hasidic garb, mother Gita looking like the mother from Fiddler on the Roof and Moishe looking like news photos of Hasidic men on the streets of Brooklyn. Both retained their traditions by staying in these same clothes throughout. Ephraim, their son, began in traditional Hasidic garb and slowly by stages changed to more progressive and modern casual wear.
Anne Schilling, Dialect Coach, did a great job with Moishe and Gita’s Romanian accent. I understood their dialog easily and yet believed their European origins. This is a real virtue as foreign accents often become distraction. Not here.
Dean Nolen directed an excellent cast that took Bone’s strong characters and eased into them like a tight leather glove. Bone’s script is funny on its own but each actor used tightly-directed comedic timing to wring humor out of moments of chaos and pathos without reaching for those laughs. Nolen allowed his cast to play in their characters’ emotional playground and each actor seemed to breathe into their role effortlessly. It was a joy to simply live the story with the characters.
Jake Buchanan as Ephraim created the psyche of a young man reeling from heartache in his life, questioning everything he’d been taught since childhood. Buchanan traveled through escalating emotional responses from the moment Ephraim shaved his beard through periodic clothing changes and growing frustrations with the modern world. He showed us innocent confusion about new social conventions, a fear of Moishe and strong conviction when Ephraim finally faces his father.
Sarah, played by Marianne Galloway, approached Ephraim’s advances cautiously with the sensitivity of a young man’s fledgling foray into a new world. We could see chemistry between the two actors and between the two characters, but neither Galloway nor Buchanan pushed it, preferring to let the relationship slowly simmer. Galloway responded sensitively to the fits and starts of Ephraim, playing her experienced woman role without becoming superior. What we saw were two people exploring each other and learning to respect their cultures.
Moishe could be labeled the anti-hero, but in him we saw a caring father and community leader afraid of the encroaching urban life and holding on to tradition. Ben Westfried played this deeply pathetic, yet understandable, character by allowing those long-held traditional belief systems which drove Moishe, which stemmed from the Holocaust, to play out naturally. There was nothing evil about him – nothing we could hate.
This play has a parallel story line about Gita, Moishe’s wife and Ephraim’s mother. Nancy Sherrard showed us the mother in this paternalistic society giving way to the father even as he pushes the son away. Yet Sherrard also showed us strength in her relationship with her son as she quietly, yet fearfully, accepts his changes. We saw Sherrard cowering against Moishe’s bellowing, but then we saw her showing Gita as the heartbroken mother in moments of deep grief.
Ian Ferguson played Pete, Moishe’s attorney and Sarah’s gay roommate. His understated comfort in delivering this supporting role allowed Pete to connect all the story lines. Ferguson presented Pete as a gay man who doesn’t act or talk gay, yet strongly accepting his identity enough to be a role model for Ephraim as he deals with his on “coming out” issues, a friend to Sarah as she deals with her uncertainty, and professional legal advisor to Moishe.
A New York City policeman, Lt. Bishara, was played by Edward Treminio. Though a smaller role, it shows Gita how an Arab can treat an Israeli without the expected cultural conflict she expects. Treminio gave this cop a real peacefulness in the face of Gita’s conditioned fearful response.
Division Avenue is an outstanding new play that tells a deeply human story while crossing cultures, families and situations. It tells us that family and traditions, while important in providing stability, can nevertheless suffocate everyone. It shows that many of us face some kind of identity crisis as we grow, but the strength of others help us grow through it. It shows us that cultures can live and work in harmony when they learn to respect each other, but the process is often painful.
This play is outstanding entertainment. It’s a morality tale that goes down easier because of its comedy, and this is because of the smart writing and the ease in which the actors delivered Bone’s lines allowing them to resonate with the audience. Although the ending might be heartbreaking, there’s a real positivity about it as though it might well turn out for the best.
Division Avenue was an unscheduled addition to the CTD season after Artistic Director, Sue Loncar, saw the play in New York just a few months ago and “just wanted to see this in Dallas.” Contemporary Theatre of Dallas has a real artistic vision to take on such a project and present such a fun and worthy production.
Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, 5601 Sears Road, Dallas, TX, 75206
Plays through December 15th
Thursdays – 7:30pm (no show Nov. 28th)
Fridays and Saturdays – 8:00pm
Sundays – 2:00 pm (no show Nov. 24th)
Thursday/Friday, tickets are $35.00 main floor, $30.00 balcony.
Saturday/Sunday, $45.00 main floor, $40.00 balcony.
For info and tickets visit www.contemporarytheatreofdallas.com or call 214-828-0094.