Ethnic Theater - Jewish
"The Children of Vonderly"
13th Street Theatre, Manhattan
“The Children of Vonderly” is an off-Broadway play about a strong Jewish matriarch and the numerous disabled children she and her husband adopted. This could easily have been a true story, as such tales have occasionally surfaced in the newspapers.
The show itself also draws on diverse cultures and races, with the venerable Asian Ma-Yi Theater Company as producer--and playwright, cast, and design team running the gamut. All this is to the good. We are entering a hoped-for world of the future—where intolerance has disappeared and races live and work in harmony.
As such, “Vonderly” promises to be a feel-good drama wherein parents offer love and security and children overcome adversity. The danger, we feared, would be an over-sentimental approach. But “The Children of Vonderly” turned out to be none of the above—and indeed moved in a very different direction. Instead of a sugar-coated tale, bitterness, chaos, stress rule the roost.
This about-face approach could have proved interesting, but “Vonderly” never lives up to its promise. There is no plot, no order, no theme, no resolution. The father has just died, the family is in mourning, and the distraught mother rejects them all. Two squabbling brothers are in love with their sister, two others are retarded and require constant care. And then there’s the dwarf (another brother), a successful accountant, who bustles about on stage attempting to take charge. It is, as one viewer commented, merely “a day in the life of one dysfunctional family,” a moment in time.
Granted the production has startling images—i.e., two brothers—one black, one Asian--wear yarmulkes as they sit Shiva for their father. One wonders why playwright Lloyd Suh chose to make this a Jewish family. Probably just to offer one more offbeat touch to the story. What other excuse for putting a yarmulke on a black boy?
Certainly on the positive side, are the performers themselves. It is, in fact, a brilliant cast, led by William Jackson Harper, and including the excellent Lynn Cohen as the mother, plus Jackie Chung, Stephen Jutras, Hoon Lee, Shawn Randall, Paco Tolson, and Maureen Sebastian. Actors are called upon, not only to flesh out their characters, but to contort their bodies or operate from a wheelchair, as the case may be. Each characterization is a gem.
“Vonderly” is one more example of actors outstripping their material, of players topping the play, so common in today’s theater.
-- Irene Backalenick
Oct. 22, 2007