Dispense with stereotype, and make with the realism! Gip Hoppe’s “Mercy on the Doorstep” mixes gentle storytelling and harsh reality to make for a compelling and vibrant drama, the first in many years to allow "fair and balanced" to be seen with "religious." Sure, the first glimpse of Rena and Mark screams out “bible thumper,” but Hoppe spends the rest of the show dispelling these initial perceptions, all while avoiding any one proselytizing view. It’s a neat trick, deftly executed by three marvelous performers and one very experienced director.
Corrine, a vivacious binge drinker in her fifties, wakes up to finds her house invaded by Mark, an insecure and overcompensating minister, and his wife, Rena (her stepdaughter). On his deathbed, Corrine’s husband converted to Christianity and ceded all property to Rena, including a porn—“and vintage comics!”—shop that Mark plans to turn into his first ministry. They haven’t arrived to throw her out, though, they only want to save her (particularly Rena, who shares a sisterly bond with Corrine). But Corrine is far from needing salvation, and with a needling passive-aggressiveness begins to turn the tables on her uninvited houseguests, perhaps even saving them.
Jim Simpson’s direction lends itself to this open-ended script: the blocking is wide and natural, and Hoppe’s short, terse scenes, which never tell more than necessary (sometimes not enough), flow smoothly from moment to pivotal moment. Then there’s the set itself, as irrepressibly homey as it is New Age-y. The audience enters through the front door, and the seats cluster closely around two corners of the stage; the effect equates with coming over for dinner and being allowed to stay for a dysfunctional family drama.
This cozy, intimate feeling also exudes from the performers. Laura Esterman and Jenn Harris (Corrine and Rena) have the kind of onstage chemistry and understanding that makes text seem superfluous, and although Mark (Mark Rosenthal) isn’t as uninhibited, Mr. Rosenthal finds a smoothness in him that makes the antagonism likeable, flaws and all. Hoppe’s script shifts perceptions frequently, but this cast never lags behind.
The only flaw in “Mercy on the Doorstep” is that some of Hoppe’s short scenes seem reversed in their construction. Rather than jumping into the action and sticking with it, some of the scenes open dully, and end just as they're getting interesting. Rena and Mark are passive characters, but I wish Simpson could find a theatrical truth to at least extend these final moments. Once the emotion is out there, it seems cruel to abort it.
A lot of modern playwrights and directors find it necessary to exaggerate characters or find some technical spectacle with which to captivate the audience. Hopefully, “Mercy on the Doorstep” will serve as a reminder that all you really need is a good, solid story and the integrity to remain honest in its telling.
Flea Theater (41 White Street)
Tickets: $35.00 (212-352-3101)
Schedule: Tuesday-Saturday @ 7:00; Saturday @ 3:00
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.