As someone who is interested in the moments between the lines, I am always thrilled to see silence used powerfully on stage. Some of the strongest moments of acting come from these nonverbal moments as actors who are beyond words communicate with the each other and the audience. However, there is a line between active and passive silence. In Brett C. Leonard's new play Ninth and Joanie at Labyrinth's Bank Street Theater, a concept full of potential has its wind taken out of its sails by dead silences.
I always enjoy seeing Labyrinth Theater Company's work because of the constant flow of fresh material, solid acting, and artistic commitment to the theatre scene in general. Labyrinth's Bank Street Theater is one of the places where working actors come to see theatre, which is always the sign of a place where vibrant artistic theatre is occurring. Of course, like any theatre that produces new work, you never know exactly what to expect.
Those of you who have read me before might remember that I always try to champion new work, and Ninth and Joanie certainly fits the bill. This drama concentrates on a family in South Philadelphia in 1986 that is trying to deal with loss, family relations, and dysfunctions.
We open on a scene of, well... nothing. Similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey there is no dialogue for the first 20 or so minutes of this play. This is a bold choice to be sure, but it is not the silence itself that proves problematic. As the play has just begun, the audience does not know how to interpret what they are seeing, namely two men taking off some of their clothes and then slowly moving about the room.
We do not yet care about these characters, and in view of this lack of commitment, the action itself needs to be striking enough to hold our attention. Unfortunately, it is not. The combination of Leonard's seemingly self-indulgent stillness and silence is compounded by low light, which causes an immediately restless audience. Mark Wing-Davey's direction does not fix this problem, though his influence over the acting is evident.
The performances themselves are by far the strongest part of this production. When actors are engaged in dialogue, which is not often enough, I was right there with them. We spend most of our time with Rocco, played by Kevin Corrigan, and Charlie, played by Bob Glaudini, both of whom are stuck in their ways and their routines. It is Corrigan's Rocco that is the dysfunctional protagonist of this piece, and he plays it well, especially in his scenes with Carlito, played by eight-year-old Samuel Mercedes. In fact, Mercedes is also the center of a very powerful scene with Glaudini's Charlie, Corrigan's Rocco, and Rosal Colón's Isabella.
After a series of strong scenes in the second act, Leonard returns to his apparently signature aimless silence for the end of the show. The end of the play is much like the beginning, a sort of silence for the sake of silence, devoid of any obvious intention. Instead of acting like a coherent framing device, this final silence is more frustrating after we have seen the characters interact with each other. Withholding information and plot from us now acts more like a cruel joke, and the audience was again restless.
This two hour long play could have been streamlined to an emotionally powerful 80 or 90 minute play. It is my sincere hope that this, or some other action is taken to help Ninth and Joanie reach its full potential. Because it's true that silence is a virtue, just not in this particular case.