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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Review: When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? (Retro Productions)

The Fab Marquee review by Dianna Martin.

Retro Productions inspired me on a myriad of levels when I sat down in my seat at the Spoon Theatre to see Mark Medoff's, When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? To begin with, you are immediately taken in by the gorgeous set - by design team, Jack and Rebecca Cunningham, who have taken this small space and turned it into a tired late 60's diner in New Mexico. From the little bar with stools, to the checkered and worn out floor; the painted windows that had the illusion of the world outside (and the diner's name backwards as if reading it from outside would have a perfect picture). There were painted shelves with plates and saucers and ketchup bottles-but so well that I couldn't tell the difference except after close scrutiny; they created the perfect illusion. The inspiration went beyond their fabulous set, complete with an old lit Jukebox that plays some of the best country hits from that time; I was inspired to see a theatre company make it its mission to do revivals of plays that are incredibly important pieces of work; it's refreshing to see a company not only revive - but rather successfully do so at that - a play like Mark Medoff's 1973 psychological thrilling piece.

Christopher Patrick Mullen (Teddy) & Heather E. Cunningham (Angel)
Photo Credit: Kristen Vaughan

It's just another day about to begin at Foster's Diner, and the early morning shift change from disgruntled and bored Stephen, a.k.a. Red (Ben Schnickel), eager to leave the diner and the town - to Angel (Heather E. Cunningham), the kind-hearted waitress who keeps a smile on her face despite her unrequited crush on Stephen. As she sets up the diner, their boss Clark (Dave T. Koenig) and regular customer/local filling station owner Lyle (Richard Waddingham), who uses a crutch due to a stroke that has left him partially paralyzed, begin to filter in. Soon after, so do a traveling well-to-do couple, Richard and Clarisse (David Blais and Matilda Szydagis) on their way to New Orleans; Clarisse holding her concerto violin more tenderly than her husband. As they order their meal and the day unfolds, everyone's world is turned upside down when Teddy (Christopher Patrick Mullen) and his flower-child girlfriend Cheryl (Cassandera M.J. Lollar) come in.

In a play that reminds me of 1967 film The Incident, Teddy slowly begins to terrorize everyone in the diner (except for Manager/Owner Clark, who left before the action began). Be it with a knife, a gun, or verbal barbs that wound deeper than any physical trauma (especially Angel, who is constantly referred to as "fat" and openly humiliated when she was the only one who was actually nice to Teddy in the first place) Teddy slowly unravels people's relationships with each other. A Vietnam vet who has obviously not worked through his issues, weaves a psychological fabric of fear over everyone in the diner, including his girlfriend; and the disquieting factor of why nobody rushes this man when there are several of them, even if one is crippled, is a statement about people's fear in general. As his assaults swing wildly from physical to psychological and emotional, we see how it effects the others on so many levels. Clarisse comes to realize that Richard is not the man she wants or could ever hope to even try to protect her - his getting shot is not from bravado in trying to save her life but from being convinced that people like Teddy are not for real. In the end of the play, what is possibly the most interesting is watching to see who was changed for the better by this experience, and who for the worse - and by that, not being really changed at all, but business going on as usual.

Most of the piece is wonderfully written, but it takes actors really dealing with each other and not falling into contrived behavior to keep a full life going at all times for some of the dialogue to not become tedious...and keep us just waiting until Teddy shows up. Unfortunately, I found the opening scene between Schnickel and Cunningham to have moments when the former was playing wrapped up in himself and his desire to leave, he wasn't allowing anything from Cunningham to land - and it was only when the other actors began to filter in that my interest was piqued again. I understand that his character is not interested in her, but our Red Ryder did not really seem interested in anything much more than his chewing gum, which was a shame. His character is very important, and I found myself disappointed that there were not as many dimensions given to this character as their could have been.

Waddingham's work was wonderful. From his physicality of paralysis and ability to use the crutch, to his dealing with his fellow actors on stage and moments where I saw him trying to really talk to people - be it Teddy or Angel or Red, Waddingham's portrayal of Lyle was truly enjoyable. He gave a breath of life to a small-town character that kept me interested. Mullen was exceptional as Teddy. It would have been very easy to just play his character as a one-dimensional sociopath. Mullen's embodiment of Teddy had so many colors and levels to his work that there was never a moment when you knew what he was going to do. I watched him as he terrorized and humiliated his fellow characters on stage, and through it all there was a specificity to every moment and choice he made. Making full choices is something that any actor who wishes to take on a role such as Teddy must do, and it was done admirably.

Although Director Ric Sechrest does a fine job with staging and made good use of the space in relation to Medoff's script, for the most part, I had a real problem with facing Cunningham upstage throughout so much of the second act. Of course, we get to see Cunningham break down at the very end of the play in a very moving moment, but I felt it did not warrant hiding her from us during so much of that second act simply to create a reveal at the end. Kudos to Ms. Cunningham for transcending the fact that she was poorly faced upstage for so much of the play.

I applaud Retro Productions for putting together a performance that had me riveted throughout much of the piece, and for simply breathing life into a play that should have been done much, much sooner. It runs through the 23rd, and I suggest people attend - for it's not often you get to see revivals like this and have them be entertaining, well-acted, and visually pleasing overall.

Retro Productions presents
Mark Medoff's
When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?
May 7-23, 2009
The Spoon Theatre

Tickets are $18.00 ($15 Student/Senior Discount) and are available at

The Spoon Theatre | 38 West 38th Street, 5th Floor | Manhattan.

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