Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Theatre Review: Ninth and Joanie

When Bad Theatre Happens to Good (?) People

Dominic Fumusa in Ninth and Joanie. Photo: Kate Edwards.

I never understood the point of reviewing truly bad theatre.

Having already suffered enough as an audience member, why put yourself  —  and quite frankly, the production — through even more by reliving it via writing?  Then again, when the company boasts such fine talent — including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bogosian, Bobby Cannavale, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Michael Shannon, Daphne Rubin-Vega and  Lynn Nottage — you’ve gotta wonder (and take to task) how something like Ninth and Joanie even happened. And no, most (un)fortunately, none of the folks just listed are involved with this train wreck produced by famed LAByrinth Theater Company.

The man behind this drab, overly dark mafia melodrama is LAB member Brett C. Leonard, a playwright who, it appears, hasn’t done terribly much outside the nurturing bubble of the Lab’s cozy compound (a couple of his plays — The Long Red Road and Guinea Pig Solo — earned some acclaim in Chicago, and he’s written for the HBO series Hung). His first play for LAByrinth since the 2008 premiere of Unconditional (directed by Mr. Hoffman), Ninth and Joanie takes us back to 1986 South Philadelphia, where an Italian American family is mourning the loss of its matriarch. Turns out mom’s death is the least of this highly dysfunctional, emotionally-stunted family’s problems: we’ll hear about another death and see yet another one before the torturous two hours are up (SPOILER: the onstage death is the only giddy jolt Mr. Leonard’s lethargic writing offers us — and really, it’s mostly owed to Jeremy Chernick’s (The Mountaintop, The Hallway Trilogy) spectacular special effects work).

The production’s problems may begin with Leonard’s inert, cliche-riddled writing — a silently grim dad who swills Scotch and smokes incessantly whilst inexplicably wearing goggles; an obsequious, troubled son who’s gone soft and puts all his faith in the Ouija board — but they end, with a dull thud, with Mark Wing-Davey’s increasingly mind-numbing direction. The first fifteen minutes consists of… nothing. Nothing happens. Dad (a one-note meanie as played by Bob Glaudini) comes in and takes off his clothes (five. full. minutes.). Son #1 (a painfully pitiful Kevin Corrigan) follows and does the same, while sporadically sputtering out nonsense to dear ol’ da’: “Can I turn on the fan?… Are you hungry? I’m hungry… I’mma make a sandwich….” (ten. more. painfully. slow. minutes.) Later: Son #2 (a furious Dominic Fumusa) enters and maniacally dances for ten minutes. This torpid indulgence sets the (non-existent) pace  for the entire show which can’t possibly consist of more than fifteen pages of dialogue; there are just so many periods of epic, maddening silence. Instead of correcting this problem, Wing-Davey exacerbates it: just when you think the silent scene can’t go on for any longer, it does. And then it keeps going for longer still.

Only set and lighting designers David Meyer and Bradley King, who together create a depressingly drab lower-middle class home lit in the murky despair of kitchen sink Drama, exit this mess of a production with integrity intact. Leonard’s unpleasant play, worsened by Wing Davy’s leaden direction, truly makes one wonder at the LAB’s astounding ability to attract both the best and the worst of talents.

Ninth and Joanie
Presented by LAByrinth Theater Company at
Bank Street Theater
155 Bank Street
New York, NY 10014
Performances from April 6-May 6, 2012
Opened  April 18, 2012

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