A play almost worth checking out just for its sheer audacity and ambition, Grand Concourse brings together an intriguing mixture of characters and themes. Alas, playwright Heidi Schreck isn’t able to take full advantage of her groundwork.
Now running through April 26 at Horizon Theatre, Grand Concourse takes place over a six-month period at a church soup kitchen in the Bronx. As the play opens, Shelley (Maria Rodriguez-Sager) — a modern nun, approaching middle age — is alone, talking to herself and praying, as part of a regular ritual.
The manager of the kitchen, she is dealing with some personal matters and starting to question her faith. Her closest work contact seems to be Oscar (Evan Cleaver), the maintenance man for the kitchen, young and still in college. One of the others who weave in and out of the kitchen is Frog (Allan Edwards), a homeless veteran battling mental illness. He cracks jokes that had cobwebs on them decades ago.
Their worlds all change when Emma (Alexandra Ficken), a rainbow-haired college dropout, volunteers to work in the kitchen, hoping to start over again and find direction. She proves to be a hard worker, and Shelley takes her in after some initial skepticism.
Emma is suffering from leukemia, something she initially wants to keep from others. She is also attracted to Oscar, who has a girlfriend.
Generally well reviewed in its New York debut last fall, the play is one that addresses heavy issues. Playwright Schreck — also a writer for Showtimes’s Nurse Jackie — has based the play on her own experiences working in a soup kitchen. In its defense, the play does not proceed predictably nor does Schreck sugarcoat matters.
Mental illness is a theme here and the playwright doesn’t shy away. Yet all together, the play never quite clicks. A few character decisions and revelations feel abrupt and unreal.
The play wavers between comedic and dramatic moments, sometimes effectively, other times not so much. Directed by Jeff Adler, it’s oddly sculpted. The off-Broadway version was a 90-minute show without an intermission. The Horizon take of the exact same play, for some reason, has been stretched to over two hours with an intermission. The extra running time shows. This version feels extraneous.
Scenic designers Isabel A. and Moriah Curley-Clay handle the set and, true to their form, the kitchen looks real and lived-in. Adler’s ensemble, too, work hard and some of the relationships that develop are touching. Individually, Cleaver comes off best. His Oscar is the least developed of the bunch but he brings real charisma to the role. The character of Frog never really feels completely authentic, but Edwards brings spirit and timing to it.
Some of the more interesting scenes find Shelley feeling comfortable around others and sharing her inner thoughts. At times, she seems a little miscast, but Rodriguez-Sager does brings a certain dignity to the role.
It’s Ficken who has the toughest task. Seen as a high school student in 7 Stages’ recent fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life, she is an appealing actress who captures Emma’s confusion. She doesn’t know who she is or where she’s going — and the new gig gives her a confidence and path. At times the actress’ work is so raw and vulnerable it can be painful to watch. Yet even she can’t pull off her character’s sudden contradictions.
Grand Concourse is deeper than most plays and for that it deserves credit. It’s a weighty piece, though, that packs way too much implausibility into Act II. I’d love to see Schreck make some tweaks into the latter stages of the play and make it into the stronger work it could be.