Reviews

The Journal News
AngelBeast by Bob Heisler
May 9, 2008

The Leventhols of Somers have shattered to pieces and, like some horrible crash on I-684, they make you slow down to take a look.

And think: Wow, I'm glad that's not me. That would never be me.

And as the images refuse to fade: I'll just pay more attention.

Attention must be paid to the Leventhols of "AngelBeast," the bold new play by Howard Meyer at his Axial Theatre's home, the social hall of St. John's Episcopal Church in Pleasantville.

It's a tough, adult evening at the theater, full of fascinating choices by the playwright and his actors. There's a little Ang Lee, some "Ordinary People" and even more David Mamet in these suburbs.

But see it, and you'll be talking about "AngelBeast" for a long time. Go to encourage the creation of a new drama by a local company. Leave with the thrill of discovering something about theater and about yourself.

This is Charlie Leventhol's story. Charlie should be playing safety for Penn State. He had the scholarship. It was his father Frank's great dream and his coach's great accomplishment. But he's still in Somers, living in someone's basement, tending bar and hanging out with hangers-on like pathetic scab-picker Mick.

Dreams get deferred when Dad's in a mental hospital, Mom's shacking up with Coach and little brother Kyle isn't there at all. It all comes back in fevered dreams of shouts in the night and the final destruction of his damaged family.

Even a year later, Charlie has a chance to get his college life together, but how could someone whose father is nuts - and someone who let his brother die - deserve all those things that come to the high-school football star?

All the pressure is making him a little nuts, too, and his old high-school nurse McIntyre can only mend his swollen wrist, not his seething anger. Everyone seems to be in his face about going to Penn State, if only to justify their own desires, their own emotional investment in him.

As directed by Mollie O'Mara, all this anger spills out in loud frustration and physical confrontations. From the first scene, bodies fly across the basement (choreographed to great effect by fight director Ryan Shams) and curses are shouted with no surrender - except by Charlie, to what he believes is his legacy.

Stephen Palgon gives Charlie a heartbreaking humanity, allowing an overwhelming frustration to rise in his throat. He doesn't choose Dad over Coach so much as accept that his options ended the day his brother died. He only asks that people - Mom, Mick - shut up and leave him alone in his basement. They won't.

Ryan Mallon's Mick and James Davies' Frank form the emotional walls closing in around Charlie. You'll want to hit Mallon, too, as his oily, motor-mouth character feeds off his relationship with Charlie. It's a mistake to call it a friendship.

When Gwen (a troubling and effective Quinn Warren) makes the mistake of giving Mick a second, futile chance to become a man, Charlie has no choice but to act.

In the alternate universe of his hospital bed, James Davies makes Frank nearly sympathetic. That's a major achievement.

Is he a victim, too? Of what? Was his violence just a mistake that cost him a foothold in reality? Davies plays with that reality and appeals to his son's sense of responsibility, but in the end, he has gained nothing - except maybe a regular visit from Nurse McIntyre, who thinks he's got a good heart.

As the nurse, Finnerty Steeves can't reveal too much too soon. Yes, she likes Charlie's father and watches over Charlie with special affection. But she, too, wants him at Penn State at all costs.

Selfish old Mom, played by a fearful Rachel Jones, seems to be the catalyst for the violence in "AngelBeast." Maybe. She certainly is looking out for No. 1, though her demand that Charlie leave his father for Coach, too, suggests a less-than-firm grasp on family dynamics. Coach can get him back in good graces at Penn State, she says, as if that would make everything nice again.

And Coach? Perhaps when Lee makes the movie version of "AngelBeast," he'll be able to speak for himself, but he's absent here. So we are left to decide for ourselves how a high-school football star with a scholarship to Penn State can so hate his coach - or how his mother also became an object of competition.

Meyer's Somers is a small, nasty place. Maybe the Leventhols shouldn't have moved to the suburbs in the first place. But not even Charlie's achievements can give him enough strength to escape the smothering pull of its gravity.

Give Meyer and Axial credit for not dotting all the i's. The result is a not-easily-forgotten evening.

Cast: Stephen Palgon, Ryan Mallon, James Davies, Rachel Jones, Michael Pennacchio, Finnerty Steeves, Charlotte Exton, Quinn Warren, Margie Ferris.