***/***** (three stars out of five)
There’s a strange, subtle change coming over certain storylines in American Theater. One which makes us aware that despite seeming deficiencies in acceptance and tolerance in our society, there have actually been some major steps forward. Take for instance the opening of “This Space Between Us”, the new play by Peter Gil-Sheridan, directed by Jonathan Silverstein and presented by the Keen Company in its first return to the stage since the beginning of the pandemic.
In “This Space Between Us,” we’re introduced to a retirement-aged married couple. The mother, Debbie (Joyce Cohen), is petite, blonde and brash. She runs the company business, particularly the books, because she’s the type of woman who is efficient and detail oriented. The business, which is now failing, would have failed sooner if not for her diligence. The father, Frank (Anthony Ruiz) is a jovial Cuban immigrant who’s fond of the way things were when he was younger, with his friends of various backgrounds who called each other names in the most fun-loving and forgivable ways: “My old buddies down at the bar, aw they used to call me beaner . . . and I’m not even Mexican! I would call them micks and hillbillies and guidos!” he explains by way of suggesting that not all “insults” need be taken in a dramatic and hurtful way, especially among friends: “Why doesn’t anyone know how to laugh anymore?” This looms larger later on, and may be the simplified, hovering message of the whole play.
The couple are at a race track (Steven Kemp’s realistic racetrack scoreboard dominates the set, long past the end of this scene), planning for a day of betting on the horses with friends and family. When we hear their son is coming and bringing his boyfriend, our natural reaction is to think that their son’s sexuality is going to be the play’s core complication. But it’s not. And that’s mainly because it’s a tired trope that’s far less of a wrinkle in American family life than it once was. In fact, it’s really no longer a big deal. (At least on the American stage it’s not—sadly, in some families it still is.)
What “This Space Between Us” ultimately addresses is far more subtle and underhanded. When Jamie (Ryan Garbayo), their son, decides he’s going to give up his extremely successful career as a corporate lawyer because his conscience will no longer let him defend the indefensible (greedy corporations), he decides to join a charitable organization that helps the poor in Eritrea. Not all the family is upset by this, especially Aunt Pat, who is also Sister Pat (an excellent Glynis Bell), a nun . . . or something like a nun that requires constant clarification. She believes very much in helping those in need. It’s part of her mission.
The misalignment comes when Jamie doesn’t understand that he’s not capable of changing the world or rescuing an entire society of people. In fact, the arrogance he displays in his charitable pursuits is symptomatic of his generation, of Millennials who believe that everything they do deserves a gold star. Studies have shown that Emerging Adults, as they were labeled when they were in their early 20s, was a generation of individuals who believed, by a large majority, that they would become famous and important one day, no matter what field they were in. This is exactly Jamie’s problem and it’s why he chose to abandon his friends and loved ones at times when he should have been devoted; and why he was so devastated by the reality he encounters.
But Jamie isn’t the only member of his peer group who is deluded. His particularly irritating boyfriend, Ted (Tommy Heleriner) is a righteous vegan, animal rights activist and hyper-sensitive, politically correct type. While some of the beliefs he holds may be for the good of society, his righteousness and willingness to judge others and condescend by accusing them of “micro aggressions,” are dismissed as fatuous. Same goes for the perky Gillian (Alex Chester), Jamie’s BFF who clearly wishes, pointlessly, he were not gay and uses this unrequited love as an excuse for not growing up. She wants to party and travel the world and not return to work on the magazine from which she is supposedly “on hiatus.”
While “This Space Between Us” is ostensibly about generational and attitudinal gaps between friends and family, it’s largely about one’s dishonesty with oneself. Although Sheridan has drawn some compelling characters, the dialog is uneven and far too expository early on. Nonetheless, it’s a compelling examination of believably real people with relatable personal problems. It’s a breath of fresh air, in a way, in a milieu that has been, of late, heavily laden, with the heavy socio-political problems of our time.
This Space Between Us. Through April 2 at Theater Row (410 West 42nd Street (between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). www.keencompany.org
Photos: Carol Rosegg