Look Past Modern Living

04/26/2010 4:00 AM |

Post Modern Living
Written by Richard Sheinmel
Songs by Clay Zambo
Directed by Jason Jacobs

There's a disarming earnestness to the work of actor and playwright Richard Sheinmel that makes his latest pair of plays, which together make up Post Modern Living (at La MaMa E.T.C. through May 2), finally more moving than their synopses can convey. This is partly due to the clever musical numbers distributed throughout—written by Clay Zambo and performed by a small band and funnyman Chris Orbach—but especially a few excellent performances. Coming four years after Sheinmel's Modern Living, also at La MaMa, Post finds his heavily autobiographic character Mitch Mitchell—who tells us during an early monologue: "I'm Mitch Mitchell, and I act in plays I write about my life"—living in Hell's Kitchen with his partner Chester (Mick Hilgers) in the first segment "The Twelfth Day," and visiting his mother Joy (Wendy Merritt) in the second act, "Über Mom." Each half creates a distinct emotional and visual aesthetic: the first deploys a Seinfeldian sense of humor throughout a series of quotidian events (waking up, going to the gym, visiting the doctor, dinner with friends) over the course of one day, the last day of Christmas; the second gradually evolves a striking magical realism over the course of an afternoon of flashbacks. The former has its moments, but the latter gently transports the audience.

The humor in "The Twelfth Day," though witty, often relies on familiar sitcom formula that can come off as precious. For instance, on his way to visit his dermatologist, the laser-happy Dr. Zappi (Frank Blocker), Mitch says he's going to "the doctor district—63rd and Park." True enough, but "Dr. Zappi," really? In the segment's best moments, the cluttered set falls away, and Mitch speaks in a stream of consciousness style, narrating his own actions. Its episodic, slice-of-life progression and laughs—particularly during a dinner party scene with friends Meg (Catherine Porter) and Gerrie (Briana Davis)—though charming, fade quickly from memory, particularly when followed by the excellent storytelling in "Über Mom." (A mysteriously loose narrative thread to do with an untraceable rosy, cinnamon odor is never solved.) A phone call from Mitch's mother (Merritt) announcing that she has cancer closes the jaunty first act and seems to announce a more grave, certainly more substantive second half.

And while the subjects of discussion during Mitch's visit to his very "über" recovering mother's garden are weighty, they flow between the pair, and Joy's nurse Grace (Porter), more fluidly and with greater livelihood than the first act's banter. Seated on or around a table that makes the La MaMa Annex stage seem much less cramped than in the apartment scenes, the excellent Merritt recounts Joy's diagnosis and operation, and her paranormal connection with her nurse. These scenes between Sheinmel, Merritt and Porter reconstruct a moving, melodramatic ghost story that never becomes sentimental. The sensitivity to pacing and the gradual stripping away of characters' defenses in "Über Mom" is the evening's greatest joy. As Post Modern Living ends with a transportive story set miles and decades away from the Hell's Kitchen bedroom where it begins, Sheinmel proves that there's so much more to modern life than we tend to acknowledge.

(photo courtesy La MaMa)