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Theatre in Review: The Bench (East Village Playhouse)

Robert Galinsky. Photo: Aidan Grant.

Even as the streets of New York are filled with members of the homeless community -- a phenomenon that the city seems powerless to do anything about -- Robert Galinsky's solo show takes us back to the nineteen-eighties, the last time that people were forced in such large numbers to sleep on the streets. Subtitled "a homeless love story" and reportedly inspired by the lives of real people, this is a brief dramatic curio, a series of character sketches that never approach a dramatic payoff. Galinsky has assembled some impressive support in the form of producers Chris Noth and Barry "Shabaka" Henley and director Jay O. Sanders, and I imagine hopes are high for the piece to enjoy a lengthy run. But without extended development, it is likely to remain on the dramatic bench.

Among those Galinsky impersonates are Graveyard, who lives for the next drink; the irascible JD (he refers to a rival as "the blood clot with a cane"); Joe, who is something of a connoisseur of the various soup kitchens around town ("Awww Christ, I told you don't go to Divinity no more...They serve hotdogs for pot roast down there"); the childlike, yet manipulative, Markie; and Lorraine, aka "Lorraine the Drain" for her reputed promiscuous sexual activities, whose personal history begins respectably enough -- she was schoolteacher -- but, otherwise, is one long slide into squalor.

As you might imagine, these characters have terrible stories to tell; oddly, however, they don't get the chance to do so. The Bench consists of a series of one-on-one tussles, each filled with local color and the seamy details of life on the street, but when it comes to delving more deeply, Galinsky steps out of character to reveal how each of them got to this desperate place. The reasons are varied: prison terms, traumatic brain injury, the side effects of too many psychotropic medications and electroshock therapy, and -- this being the '80s -- HIV infection. (The characters come from various social classes; Markie was a trust fund kid, although those days are long gone.)

This approach creates a strangely bifurcated structure, in which seemingly trivial conversations alternate with informative lectures about the characters and how they got to be the way they are. After a while, The Bench comes to seem less like a play and more like a guided tour of a demimonde. The details are genuinely distressing: Lorraine, we are told, lives in an apartment thoroughly covered with dirty clothes, and she allows her dog to defecate in the kitchen; she also lost a child in infancy. Most of the characters are strung out or boiling with rage; at one point, Galinsky faces upstage and appears to urinate in the middle of a speech. This is the New York of shooting galleries and shared needles, of street crime and single-room-occupancy hotels; if you lived here then, The Bench will bring it all back.

Still, the play is haunted by the lack of any meaningful dramatic action, as well as a tendency toward sentimentality. Lines like "I left my feelings in a pan in the emergency room" fall falsely on the ear; they make a jarring contrast to the gritty details of addiction, madness, and unsanitary living conditions. The climax -- this is a homeless love story, remember -- features one of the characters confronting Lorraine with an empty, heart-shaped candy box; by that time, The Bench seems to be openly begging for your sympathy.

As an actor, Galinsky has a fairly solid technique, but at times he has trouble giving the characters distinct identities, and the moments when he is forced to fight with himself are borderline ridiculous. He has spared himself nothing, appearing with filthy-looking matted hair, facial bruises (and a faint bloodstain), and layers of ragged clothing. The set features a series of black-and-white illustrations -- among others, the Brooklyn Bridge, a jet plane, and an overhead view of a street filled with tenements -- by Daphne Arthur. This is an admirable project, but as it is, it is in need of a more astringent point of view and a stronger dramatic spine. We need a more urgent reason to spend time with these characters; otherwise, just as in real life, it will be too easy to turn away when they approach. -- David Barbour

(14 February 2018)

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