Catch as Catch Can
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Theater review by Adam Feldman
Page 73’s production of Mia Chung’s Catch as Catch Can is so smoothly virtuosic that it takes a while to realize how good it really is. The play depicts six members of two closely intertwined working-class families in New England, and three of New York’s most indispensable actors—Jeff Biehl, Michael Esper and Jeanine Serralles—play two roles each: one character of roughly their own age, and that same character’s parent of the opposite gender. In the opening scene, the upper-middle-aged Theresa (Esper) and Roberta (Biehl) share a chat, over tea, about the British royal family and their own unsettled children, whom we meet shortly afterward: Theresa’s highly educated son, Tim (Esper)—newly engaged but returned home to visit his widowed mother—and Roberta’s offspring, Daniela (Serralles) and Robbie (Biehl). The actors don’t change costumes, but they are exceptionally clear in delineating their shifts between characters, which become progressively faster and more furious.
What seems at first like a family comedy, gently well-observed and rich in sidelong detail, takes a sharp turn with the introduction of a terrifying mental illness that seems to rip apart not only the person who suffers from it, but the fabric of the play itself. Right at intermission, Catch as Catch Can has a psychotic break, and what follows is scary, sad and often disorienting. Chung and director Ken Rus Schmoll—who, working with designer Arnulfo Maldonado, frames the production in perfectly familiar drabness—let confusion do the work of communicating a sense of chaos, as the lines between the actors’ dual identities sometimes dissolve. The double-casting is more than a gimmick: It is central to what the show has to say about what some people do or do not get from their families. Afterward, reflecting on the play, you may marvel at how finely Chung has woven her thematic threads (about family, heredity, nationality, genetics) into the tapestry that unravels with such violence in the play’s second half.
This is challenging material, but the actors come through with stunning work. Esper offers a gorgeous portrait of deterioration; his shifts between lostness and self-awareness are heartbreaking. Serralles’s verbose stream-of-desperation monologue on the telephone, a montage of conversations with health-care workers, is a knockout, and later she makes wordless horror equally compelling; Biehl, in less showy roles, holds the show together in a well-meaning hug. Page 73 is devoted to giving rising playwrights their first New York productions—its alumni include Samuel D. Hunter, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Heidi Schreck, Claire Barron and Max Posner—and with Chung it has struck gold again. Catch as Catch Can is what Off Broadway theater can be at its best. Don’t miss it.
New Ohio Theatre (Off-Off Broadway). By Mia Chung. Dir. Ken Rus Schmoll. With Michael Esper, Jeanine Serralles, Jeff Biehl. Through Sat 17.