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The Way West

  • Theater, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

The Way West: Theater review by Helen Shaw

A little thread of superiority runs through Mona Mansour's dark comedy The Way West—and thoughthat thread sometimes tangles, it also pulls occasionally taut. This archness can make the play unpleasant, particularly when it laughs at the self-sabotage of others. But then, pleasantness isn't always Mansour's goal. The playwright wants to talk about the sinking poor, about our cannibalistic lending system, about the credit economy, about the souring Western myth, and she wants to do all that in a sitcom environment. She's given herself a tall order. When the production itself becomes unsteady—when an actor can't resist the temptation to play the material broadly, for instance—the play turns obvious and clunky and mean-spirited. But Mansour's sympathy for her central character and one casually wonderful performance mean that The Way West occasionally lives up to the playwright's own ambitions. That's pioneering, of a kind.

Mom (Deirdre O'Connell) likes to deliver little lectures. Her girls Meesh (shrieking Anna O'Donoghue) and Manda (sober Nadia Bowers) are both grown and cynical, but they still listen as their mother tells tall tales of the wagon-train days. In Mom's (poorly sourced) legends, one intrepid frontierswoman swings her own broken leg to beat a coyote into submission, while another uses a petticoat to descend a cliff face. “I'm not saying we're better than other people,” Mom says of these Western heroes she considers kin, “but we are.”

The daughters are both home to help Mom with a financial crisis that is clearly spiraling out of control. Mom flings around words like “bankruptcy” and “mortgage,” but she doesn't understand them, and she bristles the moment anyone asks a personal question. Mansour peels up the carpet to look at the way the economy of this battered California town has devolved into a series of pyramid schemes: Mom's good pal Tress (Portia) describes her insane business plan, which is based almost entirely on magical thinking and her friends' investments. The daughters have their own troubles. Manda depends on credit cards, and Meesh and her friend Robbie (Curran Connor) have turned to fraud. Mom holds forth in her charming, fourth-wall-breaking talks on the “Western” values—resilience, self-belief, generosity. She believes in them; she lives by them. But when such principles aren't married to forethought, accountability and attention, they lead to disaster.

The production is basically a vehicle for the glowing O'Connell. She is every part the infuriating, darling Mom; even her hair is daffy. There are other strong performances, particularly from Connor and Alfredo Narciso as Manda's well-meaning ex, but O'Connell is indispensable—a charismatic fool, a sympathetic tragedy-in-motion. Physically, The Way West is handsome: David Meyer's design places Mom's cluttered living room against a genuinely gorgeous desert vista, one lit in a storm of purples and reds by Bradley King. The set itself plays out Mansour's dramatic arc, so while beauty stares in through the window, it can't stop the room from falling apart.

But director Mimi O'Donnell is rather less sure-handed in choreographing the living actors. Mansour only sketches the secondary characters, and O'Donnell lets us feel this thinness; she handles the play's two farce scenes with quick confidence, but the wide spectrum of performance—from Narciso's quiet naturalism to O'Donague's amateurish caricature—destabilizes an already tonally challenging play. Luckily, O'Connell keeps taking over. A scene goes south, she interrupts. A moment flags, she bustles it along. Even when the play's a mess, you can depend on her. After all, she's Mom! It's her Way.—Helen Shaw

Bank Street Theater (Off Broadway). By Mona Mansour. Directed by Mimi O'Donnell. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 35mins. No intermission.


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