Bastard Out of Queens
LENORA MAY IS AN ENERGETIC STORYteller who's come to the Bitter Truth Playhouse with Eli's Birthday, a 75-minute memoir of growing up in Queens during the 1960s with a mother who makes Caroline See's wayward mom in Dreaming seem like Mildred Pierce. You couldn't exactly call Bernice a single parent, because she was definitely the marrying kind, having tied the knot with five men. But these bonds were slipknots, apparently, for despite the presence of many fathers in Lenora's home, the girl managed to have been born out of wedlock.
We join Lenora's story when she is 6 years old and still being spoken to in baby talk by her mother, who ekes out a living as a size-6 clothes model in N.Y.'s garment district. It's a claustrophobic existence, for while Bernice has strewn the Floridian and New York landscape with offspring and lovers, Lenora shares her life only with her mother and sister Brenda, who early on shows ominous signs of mental instability. This family is not one often seen in the theater: secular Jews-without-money who must make do with occasional handouts and the kindness of the strangers who crawl onto Bernice's mattress. In fact, if there's a recurring image, it's of Lenora walking into a room -- bedroom or living room -- and finding Bernice in flagrante delicto with one of Lenora's temporary uncles.
Despite Bernice's worldly experience, however, Mom never seemed to lose her childlike trust of men, even after dating every heel to have been discharged from the military or a mental institution. At one point she receives a $10,000 inheritance, only to pass it on to one of her paramours for safekeeping, never to see it again. If that weren't enough, the family is continually menaced by a lumpish, horny gent with a fondness for Bernice's underwear who also happens to be a former lover of Bernice's own mother.
There doesn't seem to be a second act in May's life, at least as it unfolds here. She returns from intermission to list her "fathers" on a chalkboard (a lesson we would have much benefited from in Act 1), talks about a generous uncle's death and then finds herself at an Adult Children of Alcoholics meeting, even though her mother isn't a drinker. This is where the performance gets a little gooey and when we realize that we've wandered into the territory of théâtre de recoverie. In other words, it's now that time of the evening when the performer has to start feeling good about herself and discover that there are others out there like her and that redemption lies in the birth of her first child.
MAY IS A LIKABLE PERFORMER WHO EASILY convinces us that everything she tells us is the unsalted truth. Yet it is the subject's reckless behavior, and not the narrator's own ambitions, that really drives our interest -- a familiar dynamic that's often a handicap, but not here. Director Paul Kreppel nevertheless needs to give May a broader vocabulary of movement; in her rush to set down a chronology, May doesn't leave much time to reflect on her life's personal metaphors. Instead, you never quite shake the feeling that May wants to be liked at all costs, because she is always smiling and cartoonishly bouncing around the stage. She also needs to create clearer turning points in her narrative, instead of skimming over them. How did she feel when Bernice lost the 10 grand? What did Lenora think when she discovered an envelope of nude photos of her mom? And what of Lenora's own acting break in Hollywood?
Perhaps part of Act 2's shortcomings is that we're effectively separated from the show's primary focus, Bernice, even if we get some terrific glimpses into her life living in Florida married to an alcoholic with a wooden leg and an impenetrable Alabama accent. With Bernice absent, May's narrative seems to flail about, as Lenora tries, in her words, to "correct the past," even though it is that past's scars that make Eli's Birthday so interesting.
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