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Review: Boomers and Millennials Go Toe to Toe in This Space Between Us

Peter Gil-Sheridan tackles issues of the day in his new comedy at Theatre Row.

Tommy Heleringer, Ryan Garbayo, Glynis Bell, Alex Chester, Joyce Cohen, and Anthony Ruiz in Peter Gil-Sheridan's This Space Between Us, directed by Jonathan Silverstein for the Keen Company at Theatre Row.
(© Carol Rosegg)

"Humor is pain dressed in a clown suit." So says Sister Pat (Glynis Bell) in the Keen Company production of Peter Gil-Sheridan's new play This Space Between Us, now running at Theatre Row under the direction of Jonathan Silverstein. It could well be the tagline for this entertaining if overambitious comedy about modern-day cultural mores ramming up against each other and creating chasms of misunderstanding between people. Everyone in the excellent six-member cast, led by Ryan Garbayo as Jamie, gets to put on a red rubber nose as they portray characters who mask a deep hurt or resentment. But the play loses its comedic way as it becomes more earnest about the issues it tackles, and the clowns slowly begin to look more like undertakers.

That's too bad for a play that leads with such comedic promise. It begins at a racetrack (set design by Steven Kemp) where thirtysomething corporate lawyer Jamie is meeting his parents, the ebullient Frank (an eminently likable Anthony Ruiz) and the boisterous Debbie (Joyce Cohen sporting a strong Jersey-by-way-of-Brooklyn accent). With them is Debbie's sister, Sister Pat, a nun who always tries to see the sunny side of things. Jaime arrives with his angsty boyfriend, Ted (Tommy Heleringer nailing his role as a PC-enforcing scold) and fun-loving friend Gillian (Alex Chester in a hilarious performance).

Right off the bat, Gil-Sheridan gets us laughing with his funny takes on the ways we should talk about race and gender, and the conflicts between boomers and millennials, vegans and carnivores, believers and atheists, and so on. There are moments when the dialogue sparkles, and things could have easily gone awry in the first scene when one of the horses in a race is injured and must be put down. "See what happens?" you can see animal-rights activist Ted thinking as he wags a mental finger at the others. But Gil-Sheridan adroitly keeps us in a comedic mood even as Ted, who is HIV-positive, becomes ill (though not seriously) and has to be taken to the hospital, where he is doped up and has several hilarious hallucinations. Here, Heleringer delivers some of the funniest moments in the show.

Tommy Heleringer plays Ted in the Keen Company's world premiere of Peter Gil-Sheridan's new comedy This Space Between Us.
(© Carol Rosegg)

But the scenes that make This Space Between Us resonate with the humor of familiarity — Ted correcting Cuban-American Frank for his older-generation micro-aggressions, Pat and Debbie's sibling rivalry, Gillian's obsession with planning the perfect birthday party — get lost as the plot veers into heavier subjects, like the exploitation of Eritrean men, whom Jamie feels called upon to defend as he decides to leave his lucrative New York job for a supposedly more fulfilling role with an NGO. Sister Pat, who once did missionary work in Benin, admires his choice, but Gillian wants to know what the deal is with Jamie's "white savior bullshit."

Jaime's decision to pull up stakes, leaving his family, friends, and boyfriend behind, doesn't come as a complete surprise. Throughout the play we see moments in which he questions not just the sanity of the people around him, but of his life. In these moments the lights dim and a spotlight shines down on him accompanied by an intense sound (lighting by Daisy Long and sound by Luqman Brown). The effect, which director Silverstein perhaps intended to add humor to the scenes, feels awkward and unnecessary. As the action moves from New Jersey to New York to Kenya (where Jaime is ultimately assigned), the mood becomes more sullen, and we forget all about the play's clown suit. Now it's just naked pain.

Still, This Space Between Us has much to recommend it. Gil-Sheridan has a talent for taut, realistic dialogue and satirical commentary, and he's adept at playing his characters' viewpoints off each other without taking sides. You may not leave the theater laughing, but you may end up questioning yourself a bit and having a little more patience with a different opinion. And these days, that's something.

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