I was booked to see the matinee of Ren Dara Santiago's The Siblings Play on Sunday, March 15. Unfortunately, due to the unprecedented shutdown of theaters (and really, all public venues) to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the show (Santiago's professional debut) played its final performance on Saturday, March 14. Luckily, I was still able to watch that doozy of a last show thanks to the magic of streaming video — and you can too.
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater's effort to recover some of the money it lost in potential ticket sales is an exciting experiment, and I hope it paves the way for more New York theater available online for those who cannot easily access it in person. But there is an even better reason to cheer the move of The Siblings Play online: It is the most thrilling family drama I've seen this season, and now anyone with a virtual ticket can see it too. Even in the comfort of my own living room, behind the barrier of the screen, I regularly gasped and involuntarily brought my palm to my cheek (a dangerous impulse these days). But I couldn't help it: The Siblings Play consistently kept me on the edge of my seat.
It takes place in the small Harlem apartment Lenora (Dalia Davi) shares with her two children, 17-year-old Marie (Cindy De La Cruz) and 13-year-old Marian (Mateo Ferro), whom everyone calls "Butchie." Her eldest son, Leon (Ed Ventura), left home four years ago, and her husband, Logan (Andy Lucien), soon followed after Lenora caught him cheating. An unhappy status quo reigns over this household, which sits precariously in the path of an avalanche of debt and resentment.
The most obvious manifestation of that tension is between Marie and Lenora, who has dolled herself up for a hot date in a very revealing red dress (provocative yet realistic costumes by Andy Jean). In an inversion of the typical mother-daughter relationship, Marie stridently admonishes her to return before 4am and to keep her phone handy. "Ya phone stay glued to ya hand wit us," she acidly observes. "Why should it be any different when you on a date?"
De La Cruz radiates anxiety as the surrogate mother of this family, but it is the wrath of their actual mother that will have you running for cover (Davi is truly terrifying when she gets going). All hope for social mobility is riding on Butchie, a star tennis player who enjoys coding and who will be entering Bronx Science in the fall. Ferro easily embodies the clumsy synthesis of adult and childlike behavior that is characteristic of a 13-year-old, especially one burdened with great expectations. He seems especially eager to impress his big brother, whom Ventura plays with compelling furtiveness. Leon seems to be carrying around some deep dark secrets which are only partially revealed by this play's conclusion.
Santiago unveils the story of this family through a series of flashbacks featuring their father. In Logan, Santiago has crafted a powerful counterpoint to the cliché of the deadbeat dad. He may not live under the same roof as his children, but it is not for lack of interest: In fact, his ambition for his children seems to be the driving force behind Butchie's success, Marie's tenacity, and Leon's independence. Logan never went to college, but he wants that opportunity for his children. He dreams of opening a small business. But when the most successful entrepreneur in the neighborhood is a drug dealer, the easiest road to capital seems obvious. Logan is half Biggie Smalls and half Mama Rose, a combination that Lucien convinces us is perfectly natural.
Director Jenna Worsham has led the entire cast to fleshy, emotional, and multifaceted performances, allowing Santiago's story to fully take hold of our imaginations. That process is aided by particularly great design work: Angelica Borrero's set makes excellent use of the limited stage at Rattlestick, cramming details into every corner and fully utilizing the depth of the space. It looks like a giant has reached down to remove chunks of the wall, allowing us to see interior rooms in the apartment. This is both a useful and unsettling choice. Lighting designer Zach Blane washes the space in blue during the flashbacks, while sound designer Michael Costagliola lends a faint echo to the performers' voices. We instantly know that we're seeing the ripples of memory, waves of pain that still lap at our characters' consciousness in the present day.
But this family's problems are not merely psychological: Whether it is Lenora expecting Marie to help make rent or Con Edison threatening to shut off the lights, so much of the instability in their lives comes down to money. This is the kind of family that was vulnerable before the COVID-19 pandemic, and is especially vulnerable now that so much work has dried up. They are going to survive one way or another, but in this exciting debut, Santiago shows just how cruelly they have been set up to fail.