The plot elements of Lindsey Ferrentino’s new play include a marriage in crisis, a death in the family and two siblings struggling to reconnect with their younger sister who has Down syndrome. So you might be surprised to learn that Amy and the Orphans is a comedy. And an often riotous one at that.
Receiving its world premiere courtesy of the Roundabout Theatre Company, this new work from the author of the acclaimed Ugly Lies the Bone attempts a delicate balancing act in its audacious blending of pathos and humor. It sometimes falls off its high wire, veering too heavily into sitcom-style characterizations and one-liners. But the consistently powerful beating heart in the writing makes it easy to overlook its tonal inconsistency.
Ferrentino intertwines two stories. The first concerns Sarah (Diane Davis) and Bobby (Josh McDermitt), thirtysomethings attempting to work out their marital issues at a couples retreat. Their tense interactions indicate the therapy is not going particularly well. Sarah resists Bobby’s efforts to be lighthearted and makes it very clear she’s become disgusted by his constant overeating, the effects of which are plainly visible when he removes his shirt.
The second story involves siblings Maggie (Debra Monk) and Jacob (Mark Blum) who live on opposite sides of the country and have reunited after the death of their elderly father. Maggie, recently divorced, is barely keeping it together emotionally, while the tightly wound Jacob is on a health kick that includes juicing six times a day and getting braces at age 60. Their sister Amy (Jamie Brewer, American Horror Story) has Down syndrome, and they plan to meet her at the group home where she has been living so they can break the sad news and take her to their father’s Long Island funeral. The ensuing road trip also involves Kathy (Vanessa Aspillaga), Amy’s feisty, very pregnant caregiver who refuses to let her go unaccompanied.
It takes a while for the connection between these seemingly unrelated storylines to become apparent, but when it does, it packs an emotional wallop. Jacob and Maggie, feeling guilty over the family’s abandonment of their sister, ask her if she wants to move in with one of them. It all leads to a shocking revelation about Amy’s past that brings out the deep suffering she endured in her younger years.
But for all the angst on display, this production — skillfully staged by comedy pro Scott Ellis — is hardly tough viewing. Amy and the Orphans features enough hilarious one-liners to fuel a Neil Simon comedy, all expertly delivered by the talented ensemble.
Theater veterans Blum and Monk trade barbs with the timing of seasoned vaudevillians. McDermitt, although best known for playing Eugene on The Walking Dead, is also a stand-up comedian. Here he infuses his warm portrayal with exuberant comic physicality and is well matched by Davis. Aspillaga is a hoot as the saucy caregiver. And Brewer, whose film-obsessed Amy often expresses herself through famous movie quotes, displays a sharp comic timing that doesn’t make her portrayal any less moving. Amy’s show-closing monologue, revealing just how much the movies have affected her life, is the evening’s highlight.
The play is clearly a personal effort for Ferrentino; she dedicates it to her aunt who had Down syndrome. The script includes the instruction, “Finding a talented actor with Down syndrome isn’t difficult, so please do it.” This production has found two: For some performances, the title character is played by Edward Barbanell, with the role of Amy instead referred to as Andy.
Granted, there are times when the play’s humor feels a bit too broad, lessening the effect of the dramatic elements. And it requires an obvious suspension of disbelief to accept Blum and Monk, both in their late sixties, as credible siblings to the 33-year-old Brewer. But these are minor quibbles with a play that boasts a rich, aching humanity.
Venue: Laura Pels Theatre, New York
Cast: Vanessa Aspillaga, Edward Barbanell, Mark Blum, Jamie Brewer, Diane Davis, Josh McDermitt, Debra Monk
Playwright: Lindsey Ferrentino
Director: Scott Ellis
Set designer: Rachel Hauck
Costume designer: Alejo Vietti
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Music and sound designer: John Gromada
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company