Opening the 40th anniversary season of Theater Breaking Through Barriers is the world premiere of Public Servant by Bekah Brunstetter (a co-producer and writer of the Emmy-winning TV series This Is Us). Presented in the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, the new drama (the second in the playwright’s themed trilogy that began at Manhattan Theatre Club in February with The Cake) considers the personal and socio-political dilemmas of a newly-elected County Commissioner in present-day North Carolina, a distressed woman who needs his help, and his nineteen-year-old daughter visiting from college, all facing life’s challenges and coming to terms with the intimate secrets that trouble them.
Directed by Geordie Broadwater, the pacing is slow and the mood is agonizing, as the characters interact, reveal their backstories, and deal with their unhappy lives, unsettled circumstances, and predictably overlapping situations. An overwhelming tone of negativity dominates Brunstetter’s semi-autobiographical story and sardonic quips, in glaring contrast with the final resolutions that come too quickly and feel forced, overly sentimental, and unbelievably contrived, in her signature TV style.
Chris Henry Coffey turns in a controlled performance as the fledgling politico Ed Sink, with aspirations to do good work for the community, but stressed out by the barrage of phone calls in his office, the long hours at his job, and his familial relationships – soon learning that it’s not possible to do anything that will please everyone. Christine Bruno is brimming with anger, frustration, insecurity, and exhaustion as his constituent Miriam, losing her temper, crying, and laughing in her battle over the property of her deceased mother, her unfulfilled personal quest, and her ongoing fight not to allow cerebral palsy to be her defining feature in the eyes of others. And, in her Off-Broadway debut, Anna Lentz captures the nervous but idealistic character of Ed’s daughter Hannah, who appreciates truthfulness (“Honesty – that’s cool”) and who is ultimately responsible for bringing her two elders together in understanding and gratitude, not conflict.
The three actors also take on the voice-over roles of Ed’s unseen constituents, Miriam’s husband, Hannah’s mother, and others. Those in conversation with the main characters on the other side of phone calls are delivered by the leads upstage, cleverly positioned with their backs to the audience, and employing different speech patterns and accents so as to make each voice easily distinguishable.
A proverbial white picket fence of suburban middle America (set by Edward T. Morris), with multiple gates that repeatedly open up and slide out in sections, awkwardly shifts the scenes from the yard of Miriam’s inherited house to Ed’s office, apartment, and other locales, while steps at the center give him a high platform from which to speak and her another obstacle to overcome. Courtney Butt (costumes), Alejandro Fajardo (lighting), and Sam Crawford (sound) provide apropos designs and effects to describe the characters and the settings.
Public Servant addresses basic everyday issues of the human condition, the choices we make in life and politics, and the need for mutual support and empathy in order to make a positive difference. In so doing, it accomplishes TBTB’s mission of featuring professional artists with disabilities in its casting, to change widespread misperceptions and existing stereotypes. The company has also announced five dates during the show’s limited engagement (June 11, 14, 19, 27, and 29) with open-captioned and audio-described performances, ensuring that the work is accessible to everyone.
Running Time: Approximately 85 minutes, without intermission.
Public Servant plays through Saturday, June 29, 2019, at Theater Breaking Through Barriers, performing at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row – 410 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200, or purchase them online.