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Theatre in Review: Bernie and Mikey's Trip to the Moon (Strangemen Theatre Company/59E59)

Forrest Malloy, Stephanie Gould. Photo: Michael Kushner.

The emotional price of caring for a disabled loved one is the subject of Scott Aiello's new play; in its best passages, Bernie and Mikey's Trip to the Moon dispatches the idea that there is anything inspirational or uplifting about such an effort. For the members of the Vincolo family, it is brutal, soul-destroying work, and it may be blowing them apart.

Bernadette Vincolo, aka Bernie, is in her early twenties but she has the mind of a child, the result of a bout of encephalitis when she was a toddler. Plump and frizzy-haired in a way that recalls the old comic strip Nancy, with big, dark pools for eyes that take little notice of the world around her, she is, however unwittingly, something of a terror. When not in her day program -- unfortunately named Happy Helpers -- she runs around the house (sometimes in her bra and panties), scattering the contents of her sandbox or making out with a coffee table book about Elvis Presley. A shout is her default conversational mode, and she doesn't mind repeating herself endlessly -- unless asked a question she doesn't want to answer, in which case she will quickly turn opaque. In short, she is governable, but only just.

Gladys, her mother, cares for Bernie with a fierce attention that has driven a wedge between her and her husband, Mike, Sr. He spends more and more time at the family business, a working-class bar known as the Scorpio Lounge; when he comes home, he soaks up Bernie's attention, inciting Gladys' fury. Their marriage is forever poised on the edge of an inferno of resentments. Their son, Mike, Jr., aka Mikey, has forgone college to pitch in, toiling at what sounds like a Ponderosa or Outback Steak House, from which he comes home each night exhausted and smelling of grease; in his free time, he relaxes with a volume of David Hume -- a broad hint that he harbors greater ambitions, however silently.

This is not a sustainable situation, and the action of Bernie and Mikey's Trip to the Moon tracks the many incidents that push the Vincolos to the brink; there are so many that, for a long time, it's not at all clear where the play is headed. Only gradually does it emerge that the central character is Mikey, who has always assumed that he would eventually inherit full responsibility for Bernie and is jolted by the idea that maybe he shouldn't subsume his life to hers. (His interest in philosophy is authentic, possibly offering him a way forward.) Mikey is in a real bind: Not yet thirty, he is beaten down by his dead-end job and nonexistent personal life; worse, he is heading into an early middle age that offers little more than the promise of crushing burdens. At the same time, he clearly loves Bernie and doesn't want to be a disappointment to his parents. Then again, his decision to live at home is a prime source of friction between Mike, Sr., and Gladys. As Ski, another bartender and unofficial relative, says, "More often than not, a good man almost always does the right thing, Mikey." But is that really so? And what has it gotten the Vincolos so far?

To Aiello's credit, no easy answers are proposed. (In a funny way, Mikey's dilemma echoes that of Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie.) But Bernie and Mikey's Trip to the Moon suffers from organizational problems. As Mikey's narrative comes to the fore, it leaves dangling such questions as Mike, Sr.'s, possible infidelity and a plan to have Bernie officially declared intellectually disabled, a controversial move that could ultimately have her made a ward of the state. Also, when Aiello tries to play the material for laughs, he is on squishy, uncertain ground, especially in a subplot about Jeff Goldblum, a young man on the autism spectrum who pines for Bernie and who seems to speak only in punch lines. (Cautioning Mike, Sr., against taking God's name in vain, he says that Jesus "doesn't like hearing his name out loud, for some reason.")

Most of the time, however, the playwright doesn't pull his punches, especially in a sequence that, following the disappearance of Bernie, makes clear how close to disaster the Vincolos reside. And he writes plenty of juicy scenes for his solid cast. Stephanie Gould plays Bernie as written, declining to soft-pedal her most grating characteristics while effectively communicating her painful vulnerability. It's easy to see why she both inspires so much affection and frustration; she demands everything from her family while offering them only the opportunity to keep doing more. It's a very brave performance.

In addition, Forrest Malloy underplays smartly as Mikey, whose go-along-to-get-along approach has placed him, seemingly permanently, in a corner; he is especially poignant when serving as a shoulder to cry on for Laura (a vivacious Ismenia Mendes), his "best friend" from work, who, unaware of Mikey's longing glances, complains about her loser boyfriend. Jordan Lage and Margo Singaliese take part in some wounding bare-knuckle marital squabbling as Gladys and Mike, Sr. Stephen D'Ambrose brings a weathered authority to Ski, who loves to kibitz in the Vincolo family's affairs, and Benjamin Rosloff takes some, if not all, of the sitcom edge off Jeff Goldblum, who introduces into the household the disturbing possibility that Bernie might have sexual desires and the will to act on them. Overall, Claire Karpen's smart, sensible direction keeps the action from straying into mawkishness or melodrama.

The production has a straightforward, no-frills design. James Ortiz's two-level set gets the job done in terms of providing multiple playing areas, including the Vincolos' kitchen and yard and the Scorpio Room, and Cecilia Durbin's lighting and Sam Kusnetz's sound design are solid. Izzy Fields' costumes, including Bernie's vast supply of whimsical T-shirts, are especially appropriate.

And if Bernie and Mikey's Trip to the Moon feels messy, it may be in part because there is no resolution to the Vincolos' dilemma. The play ends with a significant realignment of their living arrangements, but Bernie is back in her sandbox, a question for which there is no good answer; she is a fact of life likely to keep her caretakers awake at night, wondering what in the world comes next. -- David Barbour

(16 November 2018)

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