Off Broadway Reviews
A revival of the 50-year-old play by Retro Productions, currently on view at the Gene Frankel Theatre, starts out shakily with an uncertain tone in Act I but gradually builds up a head of steam that leads to an explosive second half when the "dark" overtakes the "comedy." You know you are stepping foot into some ugly territory when one of the angrily spat first lines is, "my bitch sister is coming to dinner."
The play, which followed on the heels of Zindel's better known Pulitzer Prize winner, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, is inhabited by characters you most likely would not want to hang out with for very long. At center are three sisters who spend much of the evening lashing out at each other and at various acquaintances who dare to cross their paths.
Catherine (Heather E. Cunningham), the "Miss Reardon" of the title, lives with one sister, Anna (Amanda Jones), in their late mother's co-op. The "bitch sister" who has invited herself to dinner is Ceil (Sara Thigpen). Ceil, the only one who is married (to a man, as it happens, who previously had been dating Catherine), hasn't seen or spoken with her siblings since their cold and domineering mother passed away. Until now, the trio has operated within a sort of detente, a delicate balance that has allowed them to pretend all is well as they face the outside world in their capacity as professional educators. Anna is a science teacher, Catherine is a school administrator, and Ceil is a district superintendent.
But cracks have started to appear in their carefully arranged lives. Catherine is drinking more than "a little," and Anna, always a little quirky, has had a mental breakdown. Among other things, she is convinced she has suffered from rabies. She has also become an outspoken defender of animal rights and a strict vegetarian (Catherine has been sneaking raw hamburger meat into a candy box and eats it by the fistful when her sister is not looking). Ceil has shown up in order to press Catherine to agree to institutionalize Anna. It seems that Anna is on leave from her teaching job under a cloud of an accusation of sexual impropriety with a student.
By any measure, this is a complicated trio, each of them having devised an elaborate array of personal armor against the vicissitudes of her life. All three are educated and bright, but they are decidedly emotionally ragged. Catherine is exceptionally sarcastic; that and a steady infusion of alcohol are what protect her from her demons. Anna phases in and out of reality; at times she is an ethereal Tennessee Williams waif, but she is as capable as Catherine in expressing her fury. For her part, Ceil tries to remain aloof and efficient, striving always to keep a lid on things.
Much of the first act is devoted to establishing these personalities, and the dialog is full of biting humor, which really needs to come out more in the performances. As an example, Catherine is talking about Anna's obsession for all living creatures: "Monday night she rescued a cockroach out of the toilet bowl. It isn't bad enough we're paying over two hundred bucks a month for a co-op with cockroaches, I have to have a sister who acts as a lifeguard for them."
Funny stuff on paper, but unfortunately, the timing isn't there, and lines like these fall limp. But where the performances grow and greatly improve is in the play's second half (the three acts are being presented as two). Gradually, the humor starts to fall off, and the sisters' personalities shape up through realistic portrayals of women on the verge.
Partly what triggers this change is the appearance of two other characters who live in the same building. They are Fleur Stein (Rebecca Holt), who works with Anna, and Fleur's crude loudmouth of a husband, Bob (a disconcertedly realistic Christopher Borg). They have dropped by ostensibly to give Anna a little get-well gift from her colleagues at school, but Fleur has her own motives for being there that she will reveal in due course.
The play takes on a strong feminist perspective when Bob insists that all Anna needs is a man in her life. It is a telling scene, one that gives a new context to all that has taken place. "It's not good," Bob asserts, "when all you've got is women around." As an audience, we are reminded that the story is taking place at a time when the women's rights movement was approaching its peak in this country. We also begin to get curious about the sisters' upbringing, in which their father who "ran away with a skinny ostrich woman from Greenwich Village" seems to have gotten off scot-free, while their mother, who raised them on her own, bears the brunt of their resentment. In the end, not much is resolved, but as Ceil storms out and Catherine settles in for a night of drinking, we have gotten to understand a great deal about the sisters and their painful lives.
And Miss Reardon Drinks A Little is an ambitious if imperfect play, in which Paul Zindel sought to balance out many different competing components. The mix of humor and deep pain is difficult to pull off, and only a handful of writers have managed to do it successfully. (Christopher Durang with The Marriage of Bette and Boo and Paula Vogel with How I Learned to Drive are two that come to mind). Retro Productions and the cast, under Shay Gines's direction, do best when they are focused on the efforts of the Reardon sisters to navigate their way through life, even as the darkness descends on them.
And Miss Reardon Drinks A Little