THE BLOG
11/12/2014 09:01 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2015

First Nighter: Heidi Schreck's 'Grand Concourse, 'En Garde Arts 'Basetrack,' Alda and Bergen in 'Love Letters'

What Heidi Schreck's Grand Concourse, at Playwrights Horizons, is really about is only revealed in the final minute. So be assured the wonderfully eye-widening revelation won't be described here. Until then, it could be said Schreck is writing about hope and the slim, but not impossible, chance that a troubled person's desperate hopes can be realized.

This is another way of saying that Schreck doesn't require viewers to sit through her insightful and intermissionless 90 minutes for that ultimate moving, even shocking epiphany. Before she gets to her overriding point, she has plenty going on in the Bronx church at 167th Street and Grand Concourse. That's where the soup kitchen (Rachel Hauck's spot-on and spotless set), is situated in which the hectic action takes place.

When first seen, Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) is setting a microwave oven timer before which she haltingly offers up a prayer for the needy. She's wearing slacks, a blouse and vest (costume designer Jessica Pabst supplied them) that don't immediately indicate who and what she is: a nun having a crisis of faith in some ways similar to the one Sister Aloysius is having in John Patrick Shanley's Doubt and in some ways dissimilar.

Shortly after Shelley's pained prayer ends and the soup-kitchen day starts, Emma (Ismenia Mendes) arrives, the newest in a long line of volunteers and one who, on first impression, doesn't look as if she'll stay on any longer than her predecessors. She's a distressed young woman with red and blue streaks in her hair who abruptly announces that she's dying from leukemia.

Nonetheless, Shelley welcomes her and, Emma taking to the routine as something offering her a lifeline, does keep returning. She also becomes involved with salaried worker Oscar (Bobby Moreno) as well as with one of the soup kitchen regulars, a seeming schizophrenic called Frog, who compulsively tells pointless jokes and habitually peddles a joke book.

Schreck divides her play into numerous short scenes during which Emma's psychological hang-ups grow increasingly apparent, though not consistently destructive. Perhaps the extent of her problems and potential danger to the others becomes apparent when she sneaks into the kitchen one very late night while Oscar is sleeping on a cot and performs a sexual act on him.

Through all Emma's accumulating questionable pranks, Shelley finds reasons to forgive and even to slowly grow reliant on her. One positive gesture Emma makes is to set in motion a job-finding process for the regular soup guzzlers, who (thanks to sound designer Leah Gelpe) are heard but not seen.

Despite his bombastic nature and uncontrollable angry outbursts, Frog lands a job, thanks to Emma. That doesn't mean he'll keep it, and his aren't the only setbacks experienced by Emma's new acquaintances. Oscar, a friendly and always well-meaning fellow, is involved with (unseen) Lydia and wants to marry her--a circumstance Emma's persistent advances mars.

Scheck writes so well--deploys characters so believably in their preoccupying concerns--that she keeps the audience guessing as to how disruptive Emma's unpredictable behavior will get. The sad young woman is drawn as someone in deep despair. Yet Scheck provides her with enough positive impulses that it seems she could overcome her problems. That she might, however, isn't necessarily realistic, and watching Schreck balance Emma's pros and cons is watching an extremely deft dramatist at work.

As Emma sucks all the oxygen out of the well-scrubbed kitchen, she serves as a clever distraction from Schreck's real concern: Shelley. She's a nun in a genuine quandary, but it's only in her isolated moments that she allows it to show. With the others, she's usually upbeat, helpful, understanding and truly pious--a contemporary nun with no time for habit or wimple.

Kip Fagan directed Grand Concourse with all the compassion Schreck asks for, and the cast provides the same commitment. Bernstine is a Playwrights Horizon favorite, who was in last year's Mr. Burns. They must like Mendes as well, since she was there even more recently in Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra. Both players do the best work I've seen from them, and that's saying something. No less top-drawer work comes from Moreno and veteran Wilkof, whose volatile Frog is both a joy and a caution to observe.

What remains to be said about Grand Concourse is that Schreck is seriously concerned with values and morals--Catholic values and morals, specifically--and the surprising conclusions she draws as the lights fade is not only unforgettable but entirely forgivable.
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The histories with which Iraq and Afghanistan infantrymen return from combat are, of course, individual but in many aspects also the same. Young men--often seeing few career options for themselves--enlist, ship out with gung-ho attitudes, are worn down by in-country experiences and return home evidencing post-traumatic distress disorders, including feeling more drawn to where they were than where they now are.

Theatrically, that ground has been frequently covered over the last two decades--not that its importance can be minimalized. So, here it is again in Basetrack Live, at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey. (The title is a reference to One-Eight Basetrack, a website for soldiers and their families.)

In the En Garde Arts production, Tyler La Marr is AJ and Ashley Bloom is Melissa. They're a couple who meet shortly before he ships out for the war in Afghanistan, marry quickly and soon add a daughter, Jordan, to their separated family.

AJ and Melissa are composites of interviews with many veterans of Marine Unit One-Eight, although, more than the others, they're based on AJ and Melissa Czubai. Yes, the story they tell is by now uncomfortably familiar, yet worth hearing again.

On the other hand, in order to make the retelling fresh, creator Edward Bilous and director Seth Bockley--from Jason Grote's adaptation in collaboration with Anne Hamburger and Bockley--have added music and a plethora of projections (William David Fastenow, the designer). The non-stop background accompaniment is provided by musicians Daniele Cavalca, Trevor Exter, Kenneth Rodriguez and Mazz Swift.

Whether the additional accouterments add much, I'm not convinced. Perhaps the story told starkly would be as effective. Certainly the montage that concludes the 80-minute enterprise where marine after marine is photographed holding a rifle while sitting on a wooden crate says volumes about the waste of the country's most valuable natural resources.
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As A. R. Gurney's Love Letters carousels along at the Brooks Atkinson, the two-member cast now consists of Alan Alda in the Andrew Makepeace Ladd III role and Candace Bergen in the Melissa Gardner role, with Gregory Mosher still directing seamlessly. The letters between the two semi-romantically involved characters--delivered by Alda and Bergen side by side at a desk--extends from the time they meet in the second grade at a northeast school for privileged children until they're in their mid-fifties. The sometimes witty, sometimes angry, sometimes contemplative epistles add up to one of the prolific playwright's best works. In it Alda is emphasizing Andy's sincerity and integrity and Bergen is easily finding the humor and the eventual pathos. The laughs they're getting are deserved and abundant.