Tuesday night I sat through no less than 15 minutes worth of set changes. They provided a refreshing break from the play in progress.
There are things you can forgive if you're watching an Off-Off Broadway showcase. If the set design forces long breaks between scenes, if the writing is a little awkward or if the acting is a little hammy you take it in stride because you want to be supportive of grass roots theatre. But when you're watching an Off-Broadway production charging forty bucks a ticket it's okay to demand a higher level of competency, and slow set changes are the least of the problems with Amy Merrill's Driving On The Left Side.
This is one of those reviews I really hate having to write. Contrary to the popular cliche' of the nasty critic salivating at the thought of sticking it to a show that doesn't live up to his elitist taste, it's very unpleasant having to review a production when there's just nothing positive to say. I'm a bit embarrassed to have to write these words and really, I'd just as soon have you stop reading them right now. I mean it. There are so many other lovely articles on this web site about shows that are well worth seeing. Go check out one of them and leave me to write my assessment of this uninspiring production in my own solitude.
You won't even grant me that, will you? I'll be brief.
In the great tradition of predictable plots, a Buffalo bride-to-be named Serena (Jennifer McCabe) is jilted at the altar but decides to go on her Jamaican honeymoon anyway. And yes, she meets a handsome rebound-worthy local (Postell Pringle) who goes by the nickname Cowboy and is the lead singer for a reggae band called The Rough Riders.
You're still reading?
Cowboy is artistically frustrated because his band-mates continually show up at rehearsals and gigs drunk, high and more interested in answering their cell phones than perfecting their music. (I'm not sure if that's supposed to be a negative Jamaican stereotype or a negative musician stereotype.) He dreams of going to Miami and eventually making it big in what I assume he believes to be the thriving New York reggae scene. In the meantime he makes a living driving a taxi and being a tour guide, although I doubt if he makes much money since Buffalo gal appears to be his only customer.
Serena's dad (Paul Navarra), a Buffalo native who wears a New York Jets cap, eventually flies into town. He carries residual anger and overacting from his days in Vietnam. Eventually Cowboy's mom (Sharon Tsahai King) enters the picture for the obligatory earthy humor and motherly lessons on the culture that raised him.
Director Florante Galvez paces the show like he's being paid by the minute, with so many silent gaps between lines that the hackneyed dialogue often seems to be poorly improvised. This forces us to savor such cockeyed sentiments as, "People are hungry. Herb makes them forget." When her character considers quitting her job and staying in Jamaica, McCabe is made to explain her enchantment with, "I think it's the music. I think it's the sweet reggae music."
Scenes tend to end out of nowhere for no apparent reason and the play's lack of structure is occasionally interrupted so that The Rough Riders, portrayed by members of the real-life band Reggaelution, can entertain us with a tune or two. I can't say I know much about reggae music but I'd probably enjoy hearing them play while sipping a cold Red Stripe, if the poor sound didn't make the lyrics sung by Pringle nearly unintelligible. I'll assume the spotlight operator's continual inability to find the proper musician to focus on was intentional, demonstrating the poor quality of venues where the band plays. But I could be wrong.
The author's bio says she's also written a play about a country singer who runs away from Nashville. Based on the reaction of a couple of my colleagues the evening I saw this play about a reggae singer who runs away from Jamaica, she may want to draw from the experience and write her next one about a critic who runs away from the theatre.
Photo by Joan Marcus: (l-r) Bunny Cunningham, Al "Aljam" Smith, Postell Pringle and George Ricketts