With the debuts of Melissa Ross as playwright and Mimi O’Donnell as director, the LABYrinth Theater Company warmly embraces the Cherry Pit audience. The program reads, “Tonight’s play, Thinner Than Water, is about creation, dissolution, recreation and re-affirmation of family. Melissa Ross has sprung from our family, and we think what you will see and hear tonight is the beginning of a voice and a career that is built to last. This is her first. And you are here. Welcome to the family. We’re glad you’re here.” It’s signed by the LAB’s artistic directors, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Mimi O’Donnell and Yul Vazquez.
The audience is also introduced to the on-stage family, who tugs, pulls and reinforces the fraying “ties that bind” and snap. Three half siblings, each with different mothers, bear the responsibility to care for their dying father, a selfish, drinking, debt ridden, self-indulgent man who pursued his own desires, mostly absent from their lives. The play shines an intense searchlight on life’s defining choices, and speaks to the connection between love and responsibility. If words can cut like daggers, Ross knows how to deftly sharpen the knives.
Yet the play is a comedy, and a very funny one with a distinct voice: “Go ahead. Talk it out. You have the conch shell.”
“It’s about finding family in weird places,” said Ross. “Finding family outside your family and inside your family.”
“It’s about the siblings who are trying to become better people,” said O’Donnell. “That’s the element of the play that I always found the most compelling.”
A highly talented cast brings to life familiar but quirky characters. The team skillfully holds the audience’s interest throughout the entire 90 minutes with a perfected concoction of paper cut insults, humor, powerfully intense dialogue, and moments of beauty.
Renee (Elizabeth Canavan) is the eldest sister–bossy, competent, sarcastic. She does not approve of her siblings’ career and lifestyle choices and takes no prisoners in voicing criticism. During crises, Renee picks up the pieces, takes charge and makes sure the trains run on time. But when she sourly says, “Don’t worry about it. I’m not a judgmental person,” the audience just laughs.
Gary (Alfredo Narcisco), the middle sibling, smokes a lot of pot and cigarettes, works at a comic books shop and lives in his mother’s garage.
The youngest, Cassie (Lisa Joyce), a temp without health insurance, seems challenged by basic organizational skills, including the ability to get out of her pajamas throughout the play. An attractive, 20-something year old, she conveys youthful enthusiasm and a fragile helplessness, mostly sticking to self-inflicted wounds. Breaking up with her boyfriend, Henry (Aaron Roman Weiner), she says, “I wanted to be whatever it was you saw when you looked at me. Because all I ever see are the things that make me sick. But I guess you and I are finally on the same page, huh? When you look at me, you just see the same shit I see. You and I are finally looking at… the same exact ugly thing.”
Cassie moves in with Gary. Although not exactly Didi and Gogo in the garbage cans, the phrase “in the garage?” resurfaces during the play, providing a comical and meaningful reference point. It is certainly not where people want to be but it also forces the question of then where do we want to end up?
Ross said Gary highlights a major aspect of the play with his comments that he has two options. He can continue or not continue to be a certain person. He wants not to be that person, so steps forward to break a pattern of behavior. Ross emphasized all the characters, even the peripheral ones, make choices to change their lives. No matter how many birthdays pass, no matter what events transpire, give people more than one chance because people can change.
Ross and O’Donnell have experienced changes throughout their careers. They first met in LAB member John Patrick Shanley’s 2002 musical, Winter Party, in which Ross was an actor and O’Donnell was the costume designer. Shanley won the Academy Award for his screenplay, Moonstruck, and a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for writing the play, Doubt: A Parable. He also directed the film version, starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman (O’Donnell’s other family partner and father of their three children).
After years of working together, Ross and O’Donnell share a closeness of “being on the same page”. Ross described when writers and directors connect, the writer can trust the director knows what’s in the writer’s head. Such shared psychological understanding results in the seamlessness of the play, ironically titled Thinner than Water.
“Getting to have my debut as a writer with my artistic family, Mimi and I always felt very supported by everybody and a lot of love our way. You rarely get that opportunity working. You rarely get to work with the people you genuinely love,” said Ross.
“I felt protective of the actors, protective of Melissa, of the designers. Feeling protective and still wanting to take care of something and of people. Now, they’ve all grown up. They’re all out of my control. But I want everyone to be loved, like I love them. Letting go as a director is the hardest part,” said O’Donnell.
Ross has related to all of her characters during different times in her life. She said that a writer must be a part of all the characters to connect with them. O’Donnell observed that when you know a playwright there’s something about that person in all of his or her plays, in the characters and the language they speak. “And that’s the beauty of it,” she said with a smile.
The two gave thoughtful, exacting care in casting eight characters in search of family. O’Donnell acknowledged that people are much more complex and multi-dimensional than stereotypes determined by birth order. However, for fun, the cast researched psychological traits determined by birth order of the eldest, middle and youngest children. It turns out all of the actors within their biological families are actually in the birth order of the characters they portray.
Behind the scenes, Ross is the youngest of three, with a brother and a sister. O’Donnell, the second eldest of six, playfully said in fun, “Renee is right. Renee is always right. I agree with Renee.” Welcome to the family.
Thinner than Water written by Melissa Ross. Directed by Mimi O’Donnell. Featuring Elizabeth Canavan, Stephen Ellis, Lisa Joyce, Megan Mostyn-Brown, Alfredo Narcisco, Deirdre O’Connell, Aaron Roman Weiner, David Zayas. Running through March 6 at The Cherry Pit, 155 Bank Street. Tickets $25, www.labtheater.org.
(In the interest of disclosure, I, too, am a youngest sibling, but neither Ross nor I showed up for the interview in our pajamas. And O’Donnell was neither bossy nor judgmental.)
Betsy Kim is a writer living in New York City.