Axial’s ‘Life’ is a lively collection of shorter works
By John P. McCarthy
For The Journal News

May 10th, 2014

Axial Theatre’s reputation as a fertile incubator for writers and actors is borne out by its spring showcase “Life on Earth. The evening’s subtitle, “Monologues and Short Plays on the Sacred and Profane,” makes this omnibus piece sound ponderous and unwieldy, but its 12 works are accessible and hang together extremely well.

That’s noteworthy given the breadth of the subject matter and the number of key collaborators- 10 writers, seven directors, and 15 actors. Of course, concluding that the whole coheres doesn’t suggest that the parts are equally strong. But there are no severe lapses or variations in quality.

“Life on Earth” grew out of workshops led by Axial’s literary manager, Linda Giuliano and its co-artistic directors Howard Meyer and Francesco Campari. Campari, who assumed his position in March, is the coordinating director.

Listed as courses on a menu, the dozen pieces are set inside a dingy American bar and eatery. Each is tinged with the supernatural or mystical and involved cycle-of-life motifs. Many characters are on the verge of cracking up and report visions. Often, segments move effortlessly from triggering laughs to pulling on heart strings.

Appropriately, the initial piece involves a birth. In “Bris” by Gary Biale, Jewish grandmother Estelle (Gail Greenstein) tries to persuade her Hindi daughter-in-law to allow her grandson- Gandhi Benjamin Silverstein- to be circumcised. Stuffed with Yiddish phrases, this light appetizer about multiculturalism goes down easily. It’s followed by John Patrick Bray’s more off-the-wall “Green Sound,” which considers the inadequacy of language using two cooing oddballs wearing pajama bottoms.

While not especially revelatory, “Return to Sender” and “Homecoming” concern American soldiers who’ve seen combat in the Middle East. They dovetail nicely with the subsequent two segments that deal more indirectly with war’s wrenching effects. Sean Weil is outstanding as a grief-addled homeless man in New York City. Unfortunately, “Soliloquy,” by Kevin O’Leary, is hobbled by too many long pauses, which, though explicable, lose their impact. By contrast, Nancy Intrator is never in danger of losing the audience’s attention as a fearful mother in the riveting “Sleep Study” by Evelyn Mertens.

After intermission comes Meyer’s antic “Horus.” Mackenzie Lansing, who acts as the roadhouse’s primary bartender, delivers this inspired monologue about sexual role playing. Her character’s boyfriend fancies himself a god in the sack – am ancient Egyptian deity, to be exact.

“Horus” is followed by another peak, writer Gary Biale’s second piece “Lost in the John,” in which Tony (Michael Raymond Fox) hilariously laments the impracticality of fancy bathroom sinks and newfangled lavatory accoutrements. The final installment, Albi Gorn’s droll “Its About Forgiveness” features an elderly married couple whose fractious relationship continues into the afterlife.

The biggest knock on the production, staged in the wood-paneled hall at St. John’s Church in Pleasantville, concerns sight lines. With the audience seated on three sides of Zhanna Gurvich’s barroom set, too often it’s impossible to see actor’s faces. While unavoidable, more can be done with the blocking.

Still, it’s a pleasure to report that in addition to feeling unified, “Life on Earth” offers a positive, hopeful view of the human experience – without glossing over the anguish and tribulations. Without cheapening the joy.