Amy, a movie lover with Down syndrome, is able to quote the most well-worn lines from the most familiar movies – “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody” – and own them as her own, turning them fresh.
“Amy and The Orphans,” Lindsey Ferrentino’s play about Amy, itself quotes some of the well-worn formulas of several comedy genres, but it doesn’t make them fresh.
Directed by Scott Ellis at Roundabout’s Off Broadway Laura Pels Theater, the play has so many one-liners – some of which are funny, all of which fit a familiar Borscht Belt → sitcom rhythm — that it might initially be hard to see this work as written by the same gifted playwright whose 2015 debut play, Ugly Lies the Bone, presented such a blunt, honest look at the challenges facing a severely injured veteran.
Beneath the slick surface of “Amy and the Orphans,” though, lies the same admirable impulse to make us see people normally rendered invisible, and disarm our uninformed assumptions about them in the process. As Ferrentino tells us in a note in the program, “Amy and the Orphans” is inspired by her own Aunt Amy (who “was born with Down syndrome during a time in this country when medical professionals told my grandparents they’d just given birth to a ‘Mongolian idiot’” who should be institutionalized), and by her introduction to Jamie Brewer, the actress with Down Syndrome who is portraying Amy. “Spending only an hour with Jamie completely changed what I believed people with Down syndrome were capable of, despite having known my aunt my whole life.”
It’s plainly the playwright’s main aim to have the audience spend 90 minutes with Amy/Jamie and change our beliefs as well. (Edward Barbanell, an actor with Down syndrome, also occasionally performs in the role, at which time Amy becomes Andy.)
“Amy and the Orphans” begins with a scene set in the 1960s, with Sarah and Bobby (Diane Davis and Josh McDermitt) at a couples-therapy retreat, performing a farcical New Age listening exercise that turns into a comic-tinged squabble. The play fast-forwards to the present day, when the comically squabbling middle-aged siblings Jacob and Maggie (the reliable stage veterans Mark Blum and Debra Monk) have traveled to Long Island after the death of their father. Their plan is to pick up their sister Amy from the group home where she lives, gently break the news to her of her father’s demise, and drive her to the funeral. Things don’t go the way they expected. Amy’s caretaker at the facility, Kathy (Vanessa Aspillaga), who is pregnant, loud and loquacious (we first hear her riffing at length about turkey stuffing), insists on accompanying them. At first just a comic archetype, Kathy is the vehicle by which Jacob and Maggie realize that they don’t really know their sister at all — she has a boyfriend and a job (as a movie theater manager), and is more self-aware than they realize — and that they were complicit in her neglect. It turns out that Sarah and Bobby from the first scene were the mother and father, both now deceased (hence the play’s ironic title), who were at that retreat to help them make the decision to put Amy in a state institution.
It’s that revelation that lends power to the end of “Amy and the Orphans,” when Amy puts together the movie lines she’s been uttering throughout the play in a monologue of non-sequiturs. It’s comic, sure, but it’s also heartbreaking when Amy says: “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody”
Amy and the Orphans
Laura Pels Theater
Written by Lindsey Ferrentino; Directed by Scott Ellis
Set design by Rachel Hauck, costume design by Alejo Vietti, lighting design by Kenneth Posner, music and sound design by John Gromada.
Cast Jamie Brewer, Vanessa Aspillaga, Mark Blum, Diane Davis, Josh McDermitt and Debra Monk
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Amy and the Orphans is on stage through April 22, 2018