Friday, December 16, 2022

Are We There Yet? - A Plays and Playwrights Memory

Are We There Yet? was the play that inspired the most lasting work of my career, namely the Plays and Playwrights anthologies. It played sixteen performances (an AEA Showcase) in April - May, 1999 at Synchronicity Space on Mercer Street in SoHo.

I went to see it because I had seen another work from the same company and director (James Knopf, New Voices Theatre Ensemble: a revival of Jonathan Tolins's Twilight of the Golds, a year before this) and I had really liked it. I didn't know anything about the playwright, Garth Wingfield, or the play itself. But as you will read, I liked it a great deal; it really resonated with me, as a guy in his late 30s who was going through major life changes himself. Review - April 27, 1999

In terms of form and chronology, Are We There Yet? looks like a play about a disease: in about two dozen short, connected scenes we follow its heroine's progress, from diagnosis to surgery, from treatment (chemotherapy and radiation) to--we hope--recovery. But Garth Wingfield's lovely and poignant new comedy turns out to be only peripherally concerned with the fight against breast cancer.

Consider the title. No, there are no screaming kids in the back of a car here. Instead, there's a 32-year-old woman of questing temperament and quick intelligence, adrift in Manhattan in a life that lacks meaning and sustenance. When she learns, suddenly and scarily, that the lump on her breast is cancer, she embarks on a life-changing journey; toward recovery, certainly, but more importantly toward herself: Are We There Yet? is the story of a voyage of self-discovery. There are plenty of false starts, dangerous curves, and unexpected detours. But by play's end, Amanda is clearly there, or well on her way; which is to say that she has found her way, to where she is destined to be.

Despite the sometimes grim subject matter, from the audience's point of view at least, it's a terrific ride. Amanda (our heroine) is smart, self-aware, and has a great sense of humor. The people in her life share these qualities in varying degrees and amounts, the most important ones being her best friend Moss, a gay man with a penchant for dating men who already have boyfriends; her co-worker Sonya, a sardonic woman of indefinite age; her ex-boyfriend Felix, an immature and occasionally thoughtless hunk; and her mother, a bossy and opinionated woman who drives her crazy. All are sketched with deft clarity by Mr. Wingfield and acted with splendid naturalness by a superb ensemble. These are people who are worth getting to know and fun to spend time with.

Some of the scenes depicting their adventures during this eventful year of Amanda's life are absolutely hilarious. Indeed, some of Mr. Wingfield's set pieces feel almost like sketch comedy: for example there's Amanda's session with her unresponsive (and self-absorbed) therapist (the "cocktail party dream" is priceless), which is only loosely connected to the story but wonderfully funny; or consider the scene that follows, showing Amanda at work (in charge of a troupe of savvy pre-teen actors on a children's television show): ingenious, though more or less incidental.

But then there are other scenes that are so naturalistic and so intimate that we almost feel as if we are eavesdropping; these are the scenes that elevate Are We There Yet? from a clever Seinfeld-ish comedy to the deeply-felt, thoughtful work that it is. Mr. Wingfield has captured the hearts, minds and souls of his characters; so we don't just get quips and quirks here, we get fully-formed individuals that we recognize and understand: people who remind us of ourselves, who make us reflect upon our choices: people we can learn from.

Mr. Wingfield's play has received a beautiful staging by New Voices Theatre Ensemble, under the subtle, sensitive hand of director James Knopf. The performances are uniformly excellent, beginning first and foremost with Karen Sibrava, who is wonderful as Amanda, neatly encapsulating her fears and her hopes, her intelligence and--above all--her warm sense of humor. Peter J. Crosby is equally appealing as Moss in a winning portrayal that makes what could be just another gay male friend character into an interesting and compassionate man. Nicholas Rohlfing (as Felix) and Kim Reinle (as Sonya and several other characters) give performances that are uncannily honest and memorable, while Jane Ross, in the smaller, broader roles of Amanda's mother and therapist, is entirely believable even while occasionally over-the-top. Michael Anderson is fine in several roles (including two of Moss's boyfriends), especially as the busybody Indian shopkeeper in the building where Amanda works (Amanda's mother gets her daughter's phone number in Nantucket from him, for example).

Are We There Yet? is not a great play, but it's a real good one; Mr. Wingfield has an amazing ear for dialogue, a knack for building believable characters and situations, and a delightfully dry sense of humor. This is a play that deserves to be seen; yet Are We There Yet? is scheduled to run for just three weeks, and--like so many other worthy off-off-Broadway shows (David Rush's Of Love and Betrayal and Edmund deSantis's Making Peter Pope come to mind)--seems destined to disappear from view unless some producer has the guts and the foresight to move it, lovingly and respectfully, to a commercial run. In lieu of that (sadly) unlikely happenstance, I hope that at least you will head over to Synchronicity Space to experience this uplifting comedy--while it's still there.


You can glimpse the very beginning my idea to publish plays in the end of the review. We put this and Making Peter Pope in our first anthology, Plays and Playwrights for the New Millennium. David Rush's play, sadly, we ended up not including, but it surely would have been a worthy choice.

Are We There Yet? was the very first of the plays we published to get a second production, in London, in a small theater run by actor/producer Marella Oppenheim. Garth has written several new plays after this one, including two that I saw and really enjoyed: Dating Games (2003; a program of five shorts) and Flight (2005; a meditation on celebrity through the lens of Charles Lindbergh's life story).

I asked Garth to write the Foreword to the 10th anniversary edition of Plays and Playwrights, and he was able to capture the mission of everything we were trying to do in our books and our website nytheatre[dot]com: 

We'd mounted what I thought was a respectable production. But we were having a hard time getting critics and audiences in to see it. It was late spring, when 874 shows were opening on Broadway just before the Tony cutoff. Off-off-Broadway was on no one's radar. Our short run was winding down, and I remember thinking, All this work by these talented actors and designers and a very gifted director, and it's going to close and it will be like it never happened at all.

And then, snap, snap, snap, right into place: Martin loved it. He raved. And most importantly, he got inspired....Six months later he decided to publish an anthology of new plays.

And our journey as publishers began.

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