Theater Review: ‘Theo’ at Two River Theater

March 8, 2019
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Zachary Booth (Theo), Andrea Syglowski (Beth), Brenda Wehle (Margaret), 
Jon-Michael Reese (Abe) and Jesse James Keitel (Maddy) in the world premiere
of “Theo” at Two River Theater.

By Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen

Martin Moran’s newest play may be entitled “Theo,” but the lives of all five characters are on display and explored in this family drama receiving its world premiere at the Two River Theater Company through March 24.

No stranger to the stage, Moran has appeared in Broadway productions, including “Titanic,” “Cabaret,” “Bells Are Ringing,” “Big River,” “Spamalot,” “Wicked,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “Floyd Collins” and “The Cider House Rules.” 

Off-Broadway he won a 2004 Obie Award and two Drama Desk Nominations for his one-man play “The Tricky Part.’’ In 2013, he won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show for “All the Rage.”

In “Theo,” set in 2007, Moran focuses on a family living in a small town in the Catskill Mountains. Son Theo (Zachary Booth) left home years ago after a nasty argument with his Irish-born mother Margaret (Brenda Wehle). He returns to his childhood home in the middle of the night, waking his aging mother who, at first, doesn’t recognize him.

Moran’s family drama is filled with funny, sometimes cutting comments; he gives many of them to the mother and Wehle delivers them with pinpoint accuracy.

“You get burned twice,” she spits out when she learns there’s a tax for cremation. 

Her daughter Elizabeth (Andrea Syglowski) resents having had to look after their mother alone while raising her son Matthew (Jesse James Keitel), now 16, who is in the early stages of transitioning to Maddy. 

As Margaret gets sicker, home health aid Abraham Cramer (Jon-Michael Reese) begins visiting several times per week. Cramer reminds Theo he was kind to the only black kid in their high school and he appreciated and remembers it. He also seems to have a crush on Theo, who says he’s only staying for a few days that eventually stretches out to months. 

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All five actors, directed by Carolyn Cantor, make a perfect ensemble. 

We learn a lot about each character – perhaps more than we need to know – and trimming the 2 ¾ hour play (with intermission) would be beneficial. 

Start with the frustrating dead ends. Early, Theo makes a call to the operator seeking a phone number for the Blind Buck. A gay club? We never hear about it again. Another call, an argument with his landlord about overdue rent, is dropped.

Margaret pulls out a well-ordered accordion file with paperwork and plops a letter she received about her husband’s death in Elizabeth’s hands. He was never mentioned before, nor is Maddy’s father. But once raised, is there a reason why men in and around this family leave?

Also confusing is the two-story set squeezed into the Marion Huber Theater. Filtered water pitcher, cups, plates, table are in the living room with a door leading to the kitchen. An upstairs door leads to a bathroom that couldn’t possibly fit in the tiny space. 

But when Moran hits the sweet spot, he’s superb. A scene between the cancer-stricken Margaret, an immigrant, and Abraham, who was adopted by a Jewish couple after his village in Chad was destroyed and family killed, is quiet, wistful and real as they talk about never having seen their homelands nor families again. 

Tickets available at the box office, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank; by phone 732-345-1400, or online at tworivertheater.org and range from $20 to $70.

Journalist Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen’s
theater news and reviews
can be found on theatercues.com.

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