A delightfully neurotic tenant who doesn’t pay her rent hires a lawyer who rambles on in spasmodic legalese. The fun has only just begun in this gleeful satire, apparently inspired by the playwright’s wry reflections while volunteering as a mediator in Brooklyn’s civil courts.
It’s a New York commedia dell arte, with suitably named stock New York survivors– the landlord (Tony Hudson, played with consummate joy by Will Badgett), the landlord’s very reasonable daughter (Blossom), the tenant (Suniye Finger, played with delight and Blanche Dubois flare by Mary Shultz), the tenant’s delightfully inane lawyer (Jimmy Boner), the mysterious female presence (Mrs. Dishbrush), the colorful collector whose fashion taste bedazzles (Lorilyn Hardy), and the musician (Tuba guy). There are no stand-outs in the cast, only in the sense that every single actor imbues his and her character with that commedia zaniness that makes even their griefs transform into joie de vivre.
Maddow’s witty, intelligent dialogue lifts us up. Her text and characters are exuberant, infecting the audience with joy. Even when the nonsensical, somewhat demented tenant Suniye Finger has her most vindictive moments, she is so spirited that they do not disturb us. Of course it helps that her lawyer, Jimmy Boner (Debargo Sanyal), is a magnificent vaudevillian bungler whom we can’t help but adore.
While the play deals with the indoor living situation in New York, all scenes take place outdoors, either in Tony’s backyard or on two stationary bikes in front of a video of the same corner changing with the seasons. Pairs of characters pedal like crazy on their journey to deal with their living conditions and catastrophes, accompanied by the oompa pa of a live tuba player. The sonorous tuba contrasts with the ironic music heard in Tony’s garden – a kind of light, tinkling ice cream truck sound.
The inside world is brought outside by the use of videos of neighbors in a row of windows a story above landlord Tony Hudson and his beloved garden and birdcage, housing two birds. One window frames a live woman, recalling a time in the Lower East Side when women hung out at windows to survey the scene in their neighborhoods. She observes but never comments on Tony’s frustrating search for an ideal tenant—or any tenant at this point–for his so-called “garden apartment”, a room he needs to rent out in order to help his daughter find another place, in a desperate New York struggle for real estate and survival.
LaMama itself is a quintessential intimate East Village theater, wide and shallow with exposed brick, probably converted from a storefront, surviving in a New York fast yielding to lucrative developments from the Bronx to Brooklyn. With productions like Burnished by Grief impeccably directed by Paul Zimet in this high-spirited collaboration with the Talking Bank, it thrives, not by shunning this encroaching reality, but by exposing, caressing and re-defining it.
Burnished by Grief is all about what lengths we go to in order to live in New York City and what griefs we encounter in trying to do so. In this case, those griefs are eventually transformed via a shining ride out in the country (conveyed with the aid of another inventive video) where almost everyone finds bucolic joy. The audience certainly does.
- By Ellen Maddow
- Director: Paul Zimet
- Cast includes: Will Badgett, Shelley Fort, Sam Kulik, Debargo Sanyal, Mary Shultz, Tina Shepard and Rae C. Wright
- LaMama, New York
- Until 7 February 2016
- Review by Elizabeth Bove
- 24 January 2016