Review – The Colby Sisters of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – Tricycle Theater

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Before every show I say a little prayer, which is lifted right from The Drowsy Chaperone: “Dear God, please let it be a good show. And let it be short!” And for once, I’ve actually been given a show which admirably meets half of this prayer while utterly missing the mark on the other. I present to you: the show that’s so short you think they might have left something crucial out of the play. In this case, it’s a reason for the play to exist, a dramatic surge that forced this play into being. The Colby Sisters does not have that. There’s a bit of a build up, a teetering tension that seems ready to explode and create a completely new world … but instead of riding that wave, we get some flashbulbs and the end of the play. Huh. You think it’s going to be a modern The Age of Innocence and then you’re left with simply “there were some rich people in New York City and they were a bit sad sometimes.”

The Colby sisters are five women ranging from early forties-ish to early twenties-ish, who are drawn with fairly distinct personalities (much like the Spice Girls) and given little quirks that are easy to read so that we can tell them apart. We have the bossy Gemma (Charlotte Parry), please-every one and prettiest India (Isabella Calthorpe), “I don’t have it together” Willow (Claire Forlani), tragic Garden (Patricia Potter), and “I have just met the love of my life, no that guy was last week” Mouse (Alice Sanders, reminding me a whole lot of Edie Sedgwick). As they come together for a fashion shoot (we’re never told why anyone wants their picture or where their money came from), we are introduced to each of them in a way that allows us to see the dynamics that exist between them – settled roles of leadership and popularity, differing levels of support and hassling – but which doesn’t reveal much depth. Each of the characters seems to have been given about one note to sing and this note moves slowly from a life ring to which they cling to, gradually, a lump of cement pulling them under the waves.

Now, I know I’m murdering this metaphor, but as the play moves on we get some moments where we could either have probed the depths of who these characters are (underneath the facade, one imagines) or to show an evolution of the relationship between the characters, but it just fails mightily to happen. Bossy starts picking on Slutty, and Princess and Loser actually unite to support Slutty; but the scene fails to turn into a springboard for a deeper shift. Princess finally blows up at Bossy during a tennis game, but Bossy’s attempt to defend her behavior falls so quickly into clumsily delineated back story that I found myself becoming all to aware that I was watching people deliver lines in a play in a (thankfully air conditioned) theater.

And then the ending, in which three of the sisters unite against their one foe: the tabloid press. Their conversation again avoids anything that might actually be revealing, leaving me to believe the final line about “they’ll never understand us” is actually just the author engaging in wishful thinking, rather than how the reality of the Colby sisters: they are finger paintings made of personality quirks and hairstyles, somehow thrown together to make a play.

I’ve said many times that the mark of a great play is one where I go home trying to figure out the childhood of a character that was actually generated out of pen and ink and an actor’s breath: in this play, this never happened. The characters weren’t believable and the actresses struggled to make something of them and failed. Even the one outsider, personal assistant Heather (Ronke Adekoluejo), is utterly wasted as a character, although as an actress she convinced me that there was a life and a personality behind her rich silences. Heather and her sisters: for that play, I would have been happy to come back for after the other women walked off into the flashcubes. As it was, I was just glad I got to go home.

(This review is for a performance that took place on July 21st, 2014. The play closes Saturday, July 26th.)

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