NEW YORK— Heidi Schreck’s Grand Concourse is having its world premiere presented by Playwrights Horizons. Its title refers to a major thoroughfare in the Bronx, New York. Here the playwright has created a soup kitchen in a church, set up to feed the homeless.
The facility is managed by Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), an unconventional kind of nun, who in earlier days was a champion basketball player.
Always heretofore a staunch believer, Shelley has lately had her patience tried too deeply and is entertaining serious concerns about her faith. The audience is tuned into her misgivings by listening in as Shelley appears to be sometimes praying in the direction of the microwave.
Suddenly out of the blue a new volunteer appears on the scene. She is 19-year-old Emma (Ismenia Mendes), who, though inexperienced in the kitchen, wants wholeheartedly to be of help to people who are worse off than she is.
Although she obviously needs a lot of training, Shelley happily sets Emma to work chopping vegetables.
A remarkable vegetable soup is the kitchen’s daily offering, boasting a variety of grains and vegetables. Although Shelley is stumped when first given a substantial contribution of eggplants, she knows she will find a way, particularly when given an appropriate recipe by the full-time security man, Oscar (Bobby Moreno).
Shelley considers Oscar, who hailed originally from the Dominican Republic, to be a great find and of tremendous use. Not only can he keep the primarily male visitors in line with his size and strength, his skill with the Spanish language makes him invaluable.
Mutual romantic interest soon develops between Emma and Oscar. She finds him “cute” and he appears to be intrigued by her freewheeling attitude and multicolored hair. He tries to fight off her teasing behavior toward him as he remembers the love of his life is the unseen Lydia. In fact, he plans to propose to Lydia very soon. Or so he claims.
Frog (Lee Wilkof), one of the regular denizens of the place, often drops by, trying to raid the refrigerator when no one is looking. He writes jokes and convinces Emma to buy his joke book for one dollar, although Shelley has warned Emma not to fall for Frog’s manipulations.
Shelley also warns Emma to have nothing to do with any of the men at the place. This advice, of course, includes Oscar.
Emma soon becomes the central character of interest as she infiltrates Shelley and Oscar’s emotional spheres. It’s obvious Emma is lonely and unhappy, and as if to solidify her standing with the group, she informs them she has a serious illness.
How this information plays out commands most of the following events of the play.
Shelley, who must soon visit her dying father out West, leaves Emma to take care of her apartment and cat, and the consequences of that move are to have a profound effect on the futures of both women.
Placed against the outstanding set by Rachel Hauck, each of the quartet of players brings a unique flavor to his or her role. Director Kip Fagan appears to have brought out the best in each.
Bernstine is feisty, unconventional, yet very appealing. Mendes hits the subtle line between overdoing what might have been an unpleasantly kooky character and emerges to be a troubled but multidimensional young woman.
Moreno exudes terrific appeal and both strength and softness. Wilkof offers a complex and interesting portrayal emanating from a relatively sparse text for his character.
Grand Concourse is a welcome addition to the roster of new plays presented by Playwrights Horizons. They are “a writer’s theater dedicated to the support and development of contemporary American playwrights, composers, and lyricists, and to the production of their new work,” according to their website.
Peter Jay Sharp Theater
416 W. 42nd St.
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or TicketCentral.com
Closes: Nov. 30
Diana Barth publishes New Millennium, an arts publication. For information see email@example.com.