`Crumbs' paints a portrait of survival

Premiere: The story in Lynn Nottage's new play is told from a variety of viewpoints.


January 24, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Surviving, thriving and growing up black in 1950s Brooklyn are among the themes of Lynn Nottage's layered coming-of-age play, Crumbs From the Table of Joy, receiving a poignant Baltimore premiere at Fell's Point Corner Theatre.

Crumbs primarily is the story of Ernestine Crump, the play's 17-year-old narrator, and Korinne M. Loynes makes a stunning local debut in this demanding role, delivering an assured, yet fresh and youthful performance.

The play begins shortly after Ernestine's bereaved, recently widowed father, Godfrey (an earnest Marc Stevens), has found religion and moved his family from Florida to Brooklyn to be closer to the clergyman he regards as his savior, the real-life evangelist Father Divine. Ernestine escapes to the movies every chance she gets with her younger sister Ermina, (Dan Yelle Carter, alternating with Audra Lawson).

Nor are religion and motion pictures the family's only survival - or escape - mechanisms. One day, Godfrey's sister-in-law, Lily, shows up, suitcases in hand, to take care of the girls. Vividly portrayed by Debbie Bennett, Lily is a sophisticated free spirit who believes communism is the answer to racial freedom. However, for her personal freedom, she turns to the bottle.

Although Lily's unexpected arrival produces tensions in the household, these are nothing compared to the turmoil that erupts when Godfrey suddenly marries a German refugee, Gerte (stalwartly played by Marianne Angelella) whom he met on the subway. "Oh, God, did she have to be German?" exclaims Ernestine, who later imagines her new white stepmother breaking into a Dietrich-esque rendition of "Falling in Love Again" at Father Divine's Peace Mission.

This comic fantasy interlude, (with Angelella doing a nifty Dietrich impersonation) is one of several wonderfully theatrical moments in Nottage's script, which has been sensitively staged by Donald Russell Owens, though the production would benefit from swifter scene changes.

Like Lorraine Hansberry's classic A Raisin in the Sun, which is also a domestic drama set in the 1950s, Crumbs displays a rich multiplicity of viewpoints, in this case, shaping a young woman's character. In turn, Ernestine - a country black girl thrust into a largely white urban neighborhood - represents an upwardly mobile minority staking a claim for its proud destiny.

Nottage, herself a product of Brooklyn, is one of several playwrights currently working on commissions from Center Stage. Fell's Point Corner's production is a welcome first chance to see one of her plays fully realized on a local stage.

Show times at Fell's Point Corner, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 17. Tickets cost $11-$12. Call 410-276-7837.

Funny, touching `Jeffrey'

Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey is a gay romantic comedy set in the early days of the AIDS crisis. If that description sounds like an oxymoron, then you're underestimating the comedic talents of this writer, whose credits include I Hate Hamlet and the screenplay for In & Out.

Adeptly staged at AXIS Theatre, Jeffrey is funny and touching, but the script is structurally choppy. Essentially, it's a series of sketches.

There's the game-show sketch, the self-help guru sketch, the fund-raiser sketch, etc. Fun and fanciful as these may be, they're basically window dressing for the plight of the title character, who has sworn off sex and love, and the plight of his closest friends, Sterling and Darius, a gay couple who discover that true love and monogamy are no guarantee of perpetual bliss.

With his boyish looks, blond hair and button-down shirt, Jonas David Grey's Jeffrey is a preppy foil for his colorful friends: Robert Neal Marshall as Sterling, a flamboyant interior designer; and Anthony Viglione, as Darius, a Broadway chorus boy who wears his Cats costume off stage as well as on.

Despite their example of domestic contentment and the sudden appearance of a man (Oscar Ceville) who could be the love of Jeffrey's life, the protagonist is steadfast in his determination to remain celibate. But his decision makes him increasingly miserable, leading him to seek solace everywhere from a meeting of sexual compulsives to the Church (where a lecherous, musical theater-obsessed priest delivers the play's moral: "There's only one real blasphemy - the refusal of joy").

As this irreverent example suggests, there's a strong life-affirming aspect underlying Rudnick's hijinks. Terry J. Long, now directing his third local production of a Rudnick play, establishes a breezy tone, although the crucial final scene takes too long to reach its happy resolution.

A four-member supporting ensemble keeps the sketches zinging along, and the sole female member, Mary Anne Walsh, proves amusingly versatile in roles ranging from the self-help guru to Jeffrey's middle-America mom.

In the end, Jeffrey manages to be wickedly comic, tender and romantic, even if, like true love, its course is not always smooth.

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