Review: ‘The Assignment’ at A.R.T./New York Theatres

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Socially relevant and thought-provoking, profoundly heartrending and often funny, playwright Camilo Almonacid’s The Assignment – inspired by a true story and developed by Houses on the Moon Theater Company in association with Rhymes over Beats – examines the relationship of two people dealing with the devastating aftermath of gun violence. Presented at A.R.T./New York Theatres, and directed with balance and compassion by Emily Joy Weiner, the compelling two-hander considers the issues of guilt, remorse, and second chances, understanding and forgiveness, from the perspectives of those involved and affected.

Erick Betancourt and Karen Kandel. Photo credit: Russ Rowland.

Erick Betancourt and Karen Kandel. Photo by Russ Rowland.

Set in present-day New York, at the university office and home of English Professor Helen Payne, the teacher’s guarded professional veneer is broken by Julian J. Torres, an ebullient and loquacious (Payne thinks overly so!) 39-year-old scholarship student trying for a new start and a better life after a tragically troubled childhood and youth. At first stern and distant, she slowly begins to warm up to the obviously intelligent and eminently likeable freshman, lets her guard down, and offers him the support he needs, while also helping herself to heal in the process – until a disturbing admission threatens to ruin the progress they have both made.

Profoundly moving performances by Erick Betancourt and Karen Kandel bring emotional and psychological depth and sensitivity to the struggling characters, as their backstories unfold, their personalities are exposed, and their connection evolves from initially awkward and comical student/teacher interactions to increasingly serious personal conversations and revelations, triggered by the titular class assignment and the catastrophic events that changed both of their lives. He is outwardly unrefined but affable, determined but tortured by panic attacks and nightmares; she is educated and polished, having internalized her grief and remained silent about her pain, until she is finally able to open up to him. Both are fully believable and three-dimensional, as their characters grow (“I don’t take life for granted like that,” Julian says), learn (‘Confront your fear,” she advises him; “You’re the best teacher I ever had,” he tells her), and come to terms with the toll that senseless violence has taken on them.

2.Karen Kandel and Erick Betancourt. Photo by Russ Rowland.

Karen Kandel and Erick Betancourt. Photo by Russ Rowland.

An effective well-conceived design supports the excellent cast, script, and direction. Patrick Rizzotti’s small but clever set clearly distinguishing between Payne’s office (elevated on a wooden platform), her home (filled with memorabilia set in the platform’s niches), and outside (using a pail to extinguish the cigarettes the characters smoke). Weiner’s skillful blocking makes good use of the intimate space, moving the actors around each area, and employing the theater’s seating as the professor’s classroom (and the audience as Julian’s fellow students). Costumes by Genevieve V. Beller distinguish between the smart-casual style of Payne and the street-smart clothes of Torres, and Christina Watanabe’s lighting adds drama to the scenes of distress and brightness to the touches of humor.

Throughout its run, the affecting production will be supplemented with stories presented by theater professionals and community members who, too, have been touched by gun violence. The Assignment is a powerful example of theater that can make a difference, while entertaining and enlightening its audiences.

Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, without intermission.

The Assignment plays through Sunday, May 7, 2017, at the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres – 502 West 53rd Street, NYC. For tickets, call (800) 447-7400, or purchase them online.

 

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