Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2008
Back in 2003, I opened my review of the one-man show Fully Committed at the Theater Barn with the following paragraph: “Watching an actor perform a one-person show is like watching an athlete, let's say Lance Armstrong competing in the Tour de France. Can he do it? Will he fall? If so, will he be able to get up and continue? What unforeseen obstacles will crop up? And, in the end, will he come away a winner?”
All these questions and more crop up when the actor alone on stage is presenting his own material, and even more so if that material is personal to him. Then he might as well be standing out there buck naked, and the question of will he make it to the finish line or fall flat on his face along the way becomes a real nail-biter, especially for the critic who will have to deliver the news, one way or another, to the general public.
I am happy to report that Frank LaFrazia made it safely through the new, hour-long version of his personal monologue Living With It which he presented for three performances this past weekend at Main Street Stage.
LaFrazia makes it very clear that this theatre piece is based on his own reality. He writes in the program: “What you are about to see is based on real life events. Dramatic license was taken. Names were not changed to protect the innocent because no one is innocent in this story, especially me.” That is a ticklish statement. The actor on the stage is Frank LaFrazia, but he is not being himself, he is acting a number of different roles in a piece “based on real life events,” one of whom is named Frank LaFrazia. For the purposes of this review I will refer to the actor/playwright Frank LaFrazia by his last name and the central male character in this piece Frankie to distinguish between them.
The story he tells takes place between 1989 and 1994, during most of which time Frankie lives alone in Rochester, New York, with his mother, called Susan here, who suffered from bi-polar disorder. LaFrazia plays all the characters and the narrator of this tale, which spans the five years from the time Frankie was 13 until he was a freshman at Marymount Manhattan College at age 18.
It was not clear to me whether the word “It” in the title represents LaFrazia’s memories now or the burden he bore then, but “It” is obviously not his mother, who he clearly loved and did not regard as an object but as a tragically flawed human being. This is not a piece about a young man who hated his mother or about a mother who deliberately abused her son.
But that being said I wished there was at least one moment where we saw a slightly more human side to Susan. Surely there were moments of lucidity and grace in her life – a birthday present thoughtfully bestowed, a laugh shared, a memorable trip taken. I would gladly have seen the show a few minutes longer if I could have connected a little bit more with the cause of Frankie’s troubles.
And Frankie does not have an easy time of it. He only refers to his mother’s mental illness as “manic depression” a term no longer used by mental health professionals, even bi-polar is giving way to ever more specific terms to distinguish between difference types of disorders. She also develops Type II diabetes, which her mental illness renders her incapable of managing alone. LaFrazia uses graphic terms to describe Susan’s physical and mental illnesses, and it is not pretty. It is horrific enough to build up sympathy for the character of Frankie despite his hopeless adolescent self-absorption. Try and wish as he might to be a grown man, Frankie is a child and is not emotionally or legally able to cope with many of the situations in which he finds himself.
Aside from Frankie, the two characters LaFrazia brings most vividly to life are Terry, Frankie’s lesbian older sister who leaves home in order to deal with her own coming out and coming of age issues, but in the process abandons Frankie to cope with Susan, and their Uncle Tony, who sells televisions and calls his sister Suzie-Q. This is a large and devout Catholic family, and Holy Cross Church and School, across the street from Frankie and Susan’s home in Rochester, looms large in the story.
One of the obvious tricks to a successful one-man performance is getting the audience to forget the fact that you are up there talking to yourself. LaFrazia does a good job of distinguishing between characters vocally, but not such a good job making them physically separate. I am not sure he is helped by the sole piece of scenery on the stage – a small sofa – which has him bouncing up and down like a yo-yo when dialogue takes place between seated or reclining characters and standing ones. There were also times when characters in dialogue were supposed to be facing each other while talking and I was under the distinct impression every time LaFrazia turned his head that he had turned it the wrong way. I have seen many solo performers do that bit successfully so there is obviously a trick to this and LaFrazia could benefit from some coaching from someone with more experience in this genre.
But these are minor quibbles that can be ironed out with practice and coaching. LaFrazia has already avoided the biggest pitfall of performing personal material, he has found ways to open it up and make it accessible and entertaining to an audience. The house was satisfyingly full and responsive the night I attended. No one is credited with directing this piece, but LaFrazia mentions honing the work in a class with Kirk Jackson at Bennington College, receiving feedback and encouragement from Mike and Alexia Trova Trainor, and inspiration from the teens he works with as director of Barrington Stage Company's Playwright Mentoring Program, where he himself helps young actors bring their personal stories to life. Clearly Living With It was not created in a vacuum, and it shows. LaFrazia has listened to and learned from his colleagues, his students, and audiences who have attended earlier, shorter versions of the show.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself at Living With It in the sense that I came away feeling I had been both entertained and enlightened by LaFrazia’s writing and performance. Parts of it haunt me. LaFrazia is not easy on himself or the other characters he plays. All of it was touchingly human and I could relate to it even though I am of a different generation, not Catholic, was blessed with relatively sane and healthy parents, and have never spent quality time in Rochester. I wish LaFrazia well in his efforts to tour the piece to regional Fringe Festivals where he will have a chance to learn from more diverse audiences and from other performers who work in this genre.
Rude Audience Members Rant
About two thirds of the way through this piece, which ran for closer to fifty than sixty minutes, a group of women got up and exited the theatre. They proceeded to squeal and giggle loudly in the lobby before leaving the building. What part of “This is not a movie” don’t these people understand?? What made them think that it was in any way acceptable to walk out on a live theatre performance? What was so difficult about sitting politely for another 15-20 minutes? I can only assume they walked into the theatre knowing nothing at all about LaFrazia’s piece because the press release, the program, and the feature stories in the Eagle and Transcript made the subject matter and style of the performance perfectly clear. The articles explained that the show ran about an hour without an intermission.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, be an educated consumer. Read about the play before you buy tickets, that way you won’t waste your gasoline, time, and money on something that you might find boring or offensive. The Theatre with a capital T is under no obligation to entertain you, personally, with every single show.
But once you are inside the theatre the ONLY reason to make an exit while the curtain is up and the performers are on the stage is dire medical emergency. If you want to leave at intermission, fine. If you want to send a strong letter to the management expressing your displeasure at the piece presented, fine again, but DO NOT insult the actors, the director and production staff, and your fellow audience members by walking out mid-scene.
Living With It was performed on March 14, 15 & 16 at Main Street Stage located at 57 Main Street in North Adams, MA. The show ran about 50 minutes with no intermission and was suitable for mature audiences only. There are no further Berkshire area performances scheduled at this time. For more information about performances at Main Street Stage call 413-663-3240 or visit their Web site.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008