REVIEW: “Amy and the Orphans”

REVIEW: “Amy and the Orphans”

Characters with physical or mental disabilities are rare in the theatre.  Actors with physical or mental disabilities playing those characters is rarer, still.  And that fact, alone, makes the opening of “Amy and the Orphans” at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre Off-Broadway last night a milestone worth celebrating.

The titular character of Amy is an adult woman with Down syndrome, and she is played with gusto and heart by Jamie Brewer (“American Horror Story”), an actor with Down syndrome for whom the play was written as a vehicle by playwright Lindsey Ferrentino (“Ugly Lies the Bone”, and the upcoming “This Flat Earth”).  Male actor Edward Barbanell, who also has Down syndrome, serves as Ms. Brewer’s understudy, and will play matinees of a gender-switched “Andy and the Orphans”.

Inspired by the story of Ms. Ferrentino’s Aunt Amy who had Down syndrome and lived her life in a mix of state institutions and foster homes—devoid of daily interaction with her own family and far from their home—“Amy and the Orphans” examines the hard and difficult truth of institutionalized care for people with disabilities and its impact both on the individuals and their families, questioning how we define “family” and “home”, how we live with the consequences of choices made by our parents, and how our society’s view of people with disabilities has changed (or not).

Despite those heavy themes, the play is a comedy.  When their family patriarch dies, neurotic siblings Jacob (Mark Blum, “The Assembled Parties”) and Maggie (Tony winner Debra Monk, “Curtains”) fly “home” to Long Island for the funeral—he from California, she from Chicago.  Maggie lives the performative fantasy that they are “extremely close”, but it’s obvious from their opening scene that these siblings are anything but. 

The two travel from LaGuardia to “Caring Communities” in Queens, the group home where their younger sister, Amy, lives, to pick her up, deliver the news of their father’s death—following closely their mother’s death—and make the three-hour drive across the length of Long Island for the services in Montauk.  That plan gets derailed when they learn from Amy’s wisecracking—and very pregnant—caretaker, Kathy (Vanessa Aspillaga), that she is Amy’s legal guardian, and must travel with the trio.

[Spoiler Alert] A secondary plot, on a different time line, follows the now-deceased parents, Bobby (Josh McDermitt, “The Walking Dead”) and Sarah (Diane Davis), as they attend a couple’s therapy retreat in the 1970s and decide what to do about infant Amy.  Unfortunately, the two timelines end up giving short shrift to both stories, and the parents, especially, are painted with such broad and one-dimensional strokes that it is unclear what the audience is meant to think of them.  Indeed, much of the focus of their conversation is on their marriage, not Amy.  Ms. Ferrentino likely intended to reveal the wholeness of their relationship, but in a play with limited time and many characters, the effort falls flat.

“Write what you know” is not always the best advice.  I sense, as I did with Sarah Ruhl’s “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” last fall, that the playwright is simply too close to the material.  Further stunting the plot and character development, the relationship dynamic among the three siblings is established within their first interactions, comes into clearer focus, yes, but doesn’t change much.  It is never a good idea for the audience to be too far ahead of its characters, but the ending, in which Amy asserts her independence and shatters her distant siblings’ outmoded perceptions, blares from the get-go like car horn in traffic on the Long Island Expressway.

That said, Ms. Brewer, Mr. Blum, and Ms. Monk each give excellent performances.  The character of Kathy is, at best, problematic, and, at worst, offensive.  A composite pastiche of a generalized ethnic (maybe Italian?) health aide, nearly every line of hers rang false and forced, and was mired in sitcom stereotype.  Not even her accent remained consistent. 

With 18 scenes in 13 locations, including an airport, a rental car, and a Chinese restaurant, set designer Rachel Hauck faced a challenge to produce fast, efficient changes and set pieces that fit the realistic tone of the play.  Her smart, unfussy efforts are matched by a pitch-perfect costume plot (costumes by Alejo Vietti) that transcends decades and reflects personalities.  Veteran director Scott Ellis keeps the action, and the jokes, moving at a good pace.

The discourse around Amy’s autonomy and agency is refreshing and important, in addition to the very fact of her character’s existence on a New York stage.  Her part is the best penned, consisting mostly of “found language”, catch phrases from movies (she’s a bit of a buff and works part time at the local movie theater), and culminating in a monologue like no other.  It brought tears to my eyes, in recognition both of the character’s struggle and her undervalued ability and perspective. 

The play is appropriately titled, for, in the end, it is Amy, and not her “orphaned” siblings, who is most self-assured and able to face the future, steeled by the scars of her past.

Bottom Line: “Amy and the Orphans”, a new comedy by Lindsey Ferrentino based on her family, both features a title character and stars an actor with Down syndrome, an important milestone in New York theatre.  The play, which examines the relationships among three disparate, adult siblings and explores the meaning of “family” and “home”, is stunted and static in character and plot development.  I sense the playwright is too close to the material.

Amy and the Orphans
Roundabout Theatre Company
Laura Pels Theatre
at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46th Street
New York, NY  10036

Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: March 1, 2018
Final Performance: April 22, 2018
Discount Tickets

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