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10 Things to Do Before I Die

Tracie Thoms and Natalie Venetia Belcon give fine performances in this affecting drama about two estranged sisters.

Natalie Venetia Belcon and Tracie Thoms
in 10 Things to Do Before I Die
(© Joan Marcus)
Two estranged and seemingly dissimilar sisters come slowly and painfully together in Zakiyyah Alexander's credible drama 10 Things to Do Before I Die, currently performing at the McGinn-Cazale Theater as part of the Second Stage Uptown series. Although modest, the play is well-observed and warmed considerably by comic touches, with nuanced, believable characters brought to life both by sensitive writing and well-considered performances.

The play's action initially alternates between the two sisters: Vida (Natalie Venetia Belcon) is an unmarried New York City public school teacher by day who engages in a dead-end, no-strings affair with the married Andrew (Dion Graham) by night; Lena (Tracie Thoms) is a novelist who's having trouble following up a successful book while shacked up with her long-term boyfriend, Jason (Francoise Battiste). The two sisters haven't spoken since Vida took grave personal offense at being made, unflatteringly, into one of the characters in Lena's first book . When their recently deceased father's possessions are delivered to Lena's apartment addressed to both of them, the two are compelled to deal with each other and (literally and metaphorically) sort things out.

The play's narrative arc might lead one to expect that a melodramatic childhood secret will be revealed for the sisters to face and put behind them in tidy order; but the playwright, seemingly more interested in behavior than in plot devices, thankfully avoids that cliché. While there is some unconvincing poetic business about the sisters' shared shortness of breath, the dialogue is otherwise straightforward and lean. The playwright creates two distinct characters in the sisters and then takes the needed time and care to credibly depict the incremental shifts in their relationship.

The task is further accomplished by the fine performances by the actresses. Belcon conveys the anger beneath Vida's sometimes icy surface and makes thoroughly convincing the character's gradual progression. She also makes credible the idea that Vida would be occasionally seized by anxiety attacks, although there is room for Belcon to bring a greater sense of panic to those moments. Thoms makes Lena seem to unravel emotionally before our eyes, playing a vulnerability that is increasingly less restrained with each scene.

The women are ably supported by Graham (who makes sympathetic a character who wouldn't be in lesser hands) and Battiste (who brings welcome appeal to a character that might have remained bland due to decency). Kyle Betram, the fifth cast member, is particularly spot-on as Jose, one of Vida's students whose crush on his teacher makes him amusingly and inappropriately protective of her.

While Jackson Gay's staging is efficient, locating each sister on opposing sides of the open stage and making multi-purposed use of the shared playing area front and center, it isn't more than that. Some of the problems of this staging are left unsolved -- for instance the remains from a gentle on-stage snowfall are distractingly left uncollected like litter downstage center for the play's subsequent scenes. Yet, such missteps hardly matter by the time the play comes to its gently affecting end.