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From Riverdale to Riverhead

Anastasia Traina's play about a dysfunctional family on a car trip grates on the nerves. logo
(Clockwise from top left) Bess Rous, Catherine Curtin,
Sharon Angela and Angelica Torn
in From Riverdale to Riverhead
(© George H. McLaughlin)
Have you ever been on a family car trip during which no one seemed able to get along? Well, the women in Anastasia Traina's From Riverdale to Riverhead take this concept to extreme levels. Under Nick Sandow's direction, this world premiere play at Studio Dante has plenty of darkly comic moments, but ultimately both the characters and the play grate on the nerves.

Three sisters, Louise (Angelica Torn), Stella (Sharon Angela), and Fannie (Catherine Curtain), are off to visit Louise's son Franky in prison. Also along for the ride is Rosie (Bess Rous), the daughter of the sisters' deceased brother, whom Louise has raised in his stead. The foursome must deal with inclement weather, Stella's bad eyesight (a problem since she's driving), a 6pm deadline for visiting hours, and all of their personal baggage. To say that their interactions amongst each other are dysfunctional would be an understatement.

Both on the way to the prison and on the way back, they bicker and insult each other. At one point, Louise tries to throw herself out of the car. They talk about everything from sexual abuse to breast cancer to lesbianism. Some of their remarks are very funny, but too much of the humor involves the audience laughing at the characters' misuse and/or mispronunciation of words, rather than at any actual witty dialogue.

Rous delivers a nuanced and understated performance as Rosie, who is usually called upon as the voice of reason and arbiter of the feuds amongst the sisters. She's also able to convey the character's pain -- particularly when Louise turns her fury on her foster daughter. When things get to be too much, Rosie puts on a pair of headphones and the audience hears Sinead O'Connor through the speaker system (the sound design is by David Margolin Lawson). As you might imagine, she has to do this on more than one occasion.

The three sisters are all written in a more broadly comic vein, and the actors playing them have mixed results in striking the right tone in their portrayals. Angela is the most successful, giving Stella a believable hard edge and gruff demeanor. Curtin does a good job grounding her character's more eccentric characteristics, and some of her facial expressions are simply priceless.

Torn, on the other hand, exaggerates nearly all of her mannerisms, and her more emotional scenes read falsely. Rounding out the cast is Ken Forman as various male figures with whom the women interact. It's not a particularly showy role, but Forman does what he can with it.

One of the play's major drawbacks is that it requires the cast to stay seated in a car for long stretches of time. And although scenic designer Victoria Imperioli has fashioned the vehicle to allow maximum visibility of all four women, there's an inevitably static quality to the staging. The cramped quarters does help to make the action feel appropriately claustrophobic, but by the time the play wends its way to its melodramatic and somewhat unbelievable conclusion, you may simply be relieved that you don't need to spend any more time in the company of these particular women.

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