By Edla Cusick; Directed by Ed Setrakian
Produced by Midnight Lunch Productions
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 9.10.16
Theatre Row's Lion Theater, 410 West 42nd Street
by Adrienne Urbanski on 8.8.16
Michaela Waites, Thomas Waites, and Rochelle Bostrom in Austin. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: Austin has moments of great acting and writing, but this play never reaches its full potential.
Addiction and the hidden secrets of one family come to center stage in Edla Cusick’s Austin, whose title character (Thomas G. Waites) attempts to piece his family back together after returning from his seventh attempt at rehab for alcoholism, having last left his family with promises of his suicide.
Austin first enters the play just as his daughter Pandora (played by Waites’ real-life daughter Michaela Waites) discusses with her mother Petra (Rochelle Bostrom) the possibility that her father might be dead. He thrusts bouquets of flowers at the two women and makes endless promises to the happy future that awaits them once their family is put back together. Austin speaks manically, literally bouncing off the stage, sometimes lost in his own soliloquies on such matters as JFK-assassination conspiracy theories. Despite his bizarre behavior, Austin professes to be sober, although each character nods in disbelief as he makes this claim. In one scene he gulps from cans of Slice soda, insisting to his daughter that he really is drinking just soda. Pandora replies with a “sure Dad,” while giving him a knowing smile.
While he tries to convince Petra, who seems very unconvinced, that they can be a family again, Austin holes himself up at his childhood home in Hell’s Kitchen, a home which is now owned by his well-off condescending brother Martin (James McCaffrey) who speaks to him as if he were a child. At the home Austin unloads a taxicab full of plants and flowers to fill up the barren, exhaust-filled backyard, furiously digging at the soil as though the plants represent the growth of his own new life. While his brother is out of town, Austin's former counselor from rehab, Andy (A.J. Cedeno), comes to visit, ostensibly to aid him with the gardening. When the true nature of their relationship is revealed, it becomes apparent that Austin will have to make some changes to move forward with his life.
In terms of acting, the cast of Austin has a natural energy with each other, especially Thomas and Michaela Waites, whose off-stage relationship adds an authenticity to their dynamic. However Austin's nonstop mania sometimes eclipses what else is unfolding in each scene, and the constant high energy of the characters, especially in the opening scene, can occasionally feel forced. When a character has a pattern of speaking in rambling spurts, it can be hard to not detract from the key elements of a scene, as tuning out conspiracy theories might also lead to tuning out something essential to the turn of events. Austin's manic streams of dialogue, while sometimes amusing, can be off-putting and take space away from what could have been more fulfilling lines. Some of the more authentic feeling dialogue happens when Austin is not on stage, such as Petra and Martin’s post-coital discussions, which foreshadow through nuance the truths that are eventual revealed, or alluded to. Indeed, it's these scenes that most show Cusick’s strength as a writer.
The lighting, scenery, and sound effects also add much to Austin and make the change in settings feel more convincing. There’s a lot to like here, and Edla Cusick has certainly picked some compelling themes and created some engrossing characters. However, the scenes put on stage feel incomplete, as if the best pieces were edited out. Many questions raised in the script are left unanswered. Did Austin really fall off the wagon? Is Pandora really “sleeping with half the UN” and hiding a secret pregnancy? Or is it just a way to gain attention in a family where her father’s dramatics always take center stage? While these unresolved questions help propel interest, their ambiguity leads to confusion about who these characters truly are and whether we should be invested in them emotionally. Cusick has created the groundwork here for a great play, but as is, Austin has not fulfilled its potential.
(Austin plays at Theatre Row's Lion Theater, 410 West 42nd Street, through September 10, 2016. The running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $59.50 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200.)
Austin is by Edla Cusick. Directed by Ed Setrakian. Set and Lighting Design is by Tsubasa Kamei. Sound Design is by Miles Polaski. Music is by Michael Clifford. Stage Manager is Heather Arnson.
The cast is Michaela Waites, Thomas G. Waites, Rochelle Bostrom, James McCaffrey, and A.J. Cedeno.