There’s an awful lot of food preparation on NYC stages these days. Recent works including Generations, My Mañana Comes, and even the upcoming Hugh Jackman-starrer The River feature live slicing-and-dicing (watch out for those fingers!). In Grand Concourse—premiering at Playwrights Horizons Off Broadway and running through Nov. 30—you’re even treated to the real-time frying of an egg, breakfast-y smell and all. However, despite all the food passing before your eyes, you may feel a little undernourished by play’s end.
Heidi Schreck’s new play, set in the Bronx in a soup kitchen run by dress-down nun Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), certainly does not lack for empathy, using Rachel Hauck’s ultra-realistic kitchen backdrop as a kind of confessional for its disparate characters. Besides Shelley, whose prayers are offset against a microwave timer, there’s Oscar (Bobby Moreno), a streetwise, golden-hearted security guard, Frog (Lee Wilkof), a manically troubled but well-meaning homeless volunteer, and a new addition, Emma (Ismenia Mendes), a fragile, possibly depressive 19 year-old who threatens to turn Shelley’s life of order, religious and otherwise, into chaos.
Schreck and her trusting director Kip Fagan clearly love actors, and the play is at its best when it takes a slice-of-life (or is it slice-of-vegetable?) approach. But once the play starts to unpack the tortured natures of its eccentrics, it begins to feel a bit overwrought—substituting loud for purposeful—when a muted, more unsettling approach seems more in tune with the people you’re watching. And some of the character details feel off; one never believes, for example, that a go-getter like Shelley would ever be confounded by what to do with a crate of eggplant.
Mendes and Wilkof suffer from some of these misgivings but have their moments, and their costars are even better. Once you get past the fact that Bernstine seems to model Shelley’s vocal stylings after Julia Sweeney’s Pat from SNL, she’s quite affecting. And Moreno’s kindly protector is a triumph of low-key charm. In fact, one character hits it right on the nose in an aside about Oscar that could be true of who plays him: ”He brings a lot of energy to the place.” B-