Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Theater Review: Lindsey Ferrentino's ‘Andy and the Orphans,’ From the Roundabout Theatre Co.

The Roundabout Theatre Co. concluded an astonishing run of a new play last week. Even just in terms of the script, playwright Lindsey Ferrentino and director Scott Ellis collaborated on an often funny, more often moving road piece of theater in Amy and the Orphans

But they also spotlighted a different kind of non-traditional casting—a female and male actor afflicted with Down Syndrome, taking turns in the same key role—that, one hopes, will bring greater opportunity for this mentally challenged group.

Throughout most of the run at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, Jamie Brewer ("American Horror Story") played Amy, an adult with Down Syndrome, in Amy and the Orphans. Toward the end of the run, however, understudy Edward Barbanell, during Wednesday and Saturday matinees, took over the role, with the production then titled Andy and the Orphans for these occasions.

It was at one of those Saturday matinees that I saw Barbanell. Brewer must have been very fine indeed in the role, because Barbanell excelled as an emotionally complicated character who would exact every bit of any actor’s skill.

The plot unites bicoastally and mentally separated siblings Jacob (Mark Blum) and Maggie (Debra Monk), brought back to their Long Island for the funeral of their father (which itself had followed closely on the death of their mother). 

Before putting their father to rest, they must break the news to their younger sibling Andy, whom they will transport from his group home, “Caring Communities," for the services. Matters become even more complicated when they are joined by Andy’s pregnant legal guardian, Kathy (Vanessa Aspillaga), with wisecracks about her own situations and with pointed reminders that she is far more in touch with the daily needs of their neglected brother than they are.

Flashbacks also depict the now-deceased parents, Bobby (Josh McDermitt, “The Walking Dead”) and Sarah (Diane Davis), as they weigh what to do about infant Andy. Their decision—to commit him to Willowbrook, a New York school for the mentally disabled—left many area residents of a certain age (including this viewer) in the audience with searing memories of headlines about a now-notorious institution.

Although Blum, Monk, and Aspillaga were frequently amusing, McDermitt and Davis were consistently searing as their husband and wife characters went back and forth on a decision that would not only affect the course of their own relationship but the lives of their children.

Roundabout mainstay Scott Ellis kept the play moving swiftly through its 90 minutes without intermission.

The play’s Amy was based on the playwright’s real-life adult Amy, who had the misfortune to live “when medical professionals told my grandparents they had just given birth to a 'Mongolian idiot' who would never learn to read or write.

In the post-show “talkback” with the audience, Barbanell related how he made his case for taking on the role by reciting the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet. Natural preparation, it seems to be, with “To be or not to be” also being about how—even if—to endure a world that seems stacked against you at every turn, as his Andy is in the play.

The Laura Pels Theatre has served as a launching pad over the last several years for several new small-scale, but worthy productions by fledging playwrights, such as Meghan Kennedy’s Napoli, Brooklyn, Anna Ziegler’s The Last Match, Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love. Steven Levenson’s If I Forget, and Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews. Andy (or Amy) and the Orphans expands on that tradition, bringing to the surface a problem from America’s past in its mistreatment of its most vulnerable citizens.

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