Heidi Schreck, the playwright of “Grand Concourse,” is also an actress who performed in Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” and has served as actress and writer for the Showtime series “Nurse Jackie,” and the influence of both shows is evident in her play about four people in a church soup kitchen in the Bronx – a nun, a maintenance man, a homeless client, and a mysterious teenager who shows up one day to volunteer.
Like Annie Baker’s play, “Grand Concourse” unfolds slowly, obliquely, an apparent attempt to reproduce the rhythms of real life rather than hew to dramatic convention. Like “Nurse Jackie,” its characters struggle, grapple, behave at times ignobly or inexplicably — and, still, are easy to fall in love with.
That these flawed characters are so appealing in this production helmed by Kip Fagan, which has now opened at Playwrights Horizons, has much to do with the wonderful cast.
Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Ruined, Far From Heaven, Mr. Burns) portrays Shelley, whom we first see apparently praying to a microwave oven. She actually is just using the oven’s timer.
“I’ve been forcing myself to pray for one minute. I’m trying to work up to two, and eventually five.” She is a nun, but does not wear a habit, and does not fit the stereotype. We learn she is the daughter of a cold-hearted lawyer and a famous feminist atheist, and that her decision to become a nun was in part an act of adolescent rebellion. Shelley becomes something of a mentor to the teenage volunteer Emma, portrayed by Ismenia Mendes (Your Mother’s Copy of the Kama Sutra, The Wayside Motor Inn),
The only client we see is Frog (Lee Wilkof, a veteran of eight Broadway productions), scruffy and fast-talking who carries around a book of his jokes to sell so that he can buy a drink. He is smart and amiable, but Shelley warns Emma that he is liable to snap at any moment; he broke a man’s collarbone in a fight once.
Finally, there is Oscar, played by Bobby Moreno, who was so magnificent as the brooding rooster in The Year of the Rooster. Here, as a long-ago immigrant from the Dominican Republican, he gets to stand tall (he’s very tall), as an adorable lug – streetwise, charming, good-hearted, well-meaning but also slightly awkward. Watch what he does with his hands when his character doesn’t quite know how to react.
And Emma gives Oscar plenty of opportunities for awkwardness, teasing, taunting and seducing him, despite his having a girlfriend (unseen) whom he plans to marry.
Things do happen in “Grand Concourse.” There are surprises and betrayals, as well as life-changing decisions that at times can feel attached by the author rather than organically inevitable. But the strength of this play is in the small moments that occur between the characters.
“Grand Concourse” takes place in the same neighborhood as Clifford Odets’ first hit play “Awake and Sing.” That play was about a Jewish family. This one, 80 years later, has a mix of black and white and Latino characters, technically unrelated, but it, too, is, in its own way, about a family.
At Playwrights Horizons
By Heidi Schreck
Directed by Kip Fagan; sets by Rachel Hauck; costumes by Jessica Pabst; lighting by Matt Frey; sound by Leah Gelpe.
Cast: Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Shelley), Ismenia Mendes (Emma), Bobby Moreno (Oscar) and Lee Wilkof (Frog).
Running time: 105 minutes with no intermission.
Grand Concourse is scheduled to run though November 30, 2014