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Theater Review (NYC): ‘Derby Day’ by Samuel Brett Williams

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Mix:

Three brothers in a luxury box at an Arkansas racetrack on Derby Day
The recent death of a parent
A young single-mom waitress
Lots and lots and lots and lots of alcohol

Bake for an hour. Remove from oven:

Blood
Wrestling
Condiment graffiti
Family secrets – some true, some maybe not so much

Photo by Paul Gagnon. (L-R): Jared Culverhouse as Frank Ballard and Malcolm Madera as Ned Ballard.

Photo by Paul Gagnon. (L-R): Jared Culverhouse as Frank Ballard and Malcolm Madera as Ned Ballard.

That’s the recipe for Samuel Brett Williams’ searing new comedy-drama now galloping across the stage in a world premiere from the Camisade Theatre Company. Featuring some of New York’s finest cutting-edge talent, the play gives us a fresh and roaring take on what we often want most from theater: a vision of humanity’s smooth outer surface falling away, and the collapse, right before our eyes, of what has passed for civilization.

Here, as most often in the theater, “civilization” is the family. Eldest brother Frank (Jared Culverhouse, of the hard-edged Penetrator, and director of the sprawling but smartly staged She Like Girls), the financially successful brother, has gotten that way by running numbers. He spends the first scene seated at a table sorting through dollars and bets, radiating control and calm. Baby brother Johnny (the excellent Jake Silbermann of As the World Turns) is volatile, anxious, emotional, and pleased as punch to be out of prison. Middle brother Ned (Malcolm Madera of the Amoralists – did I mention this play has a bang-up cast?), cocksure and overbearing, lives up to his high opinion of himself by winning bets as the races commence, but his character is tempered by his flowery dreams of what he’ll do with his winnings, and then cut down to size with (to continue the metaphor) what we might think of as the shears of truth.

Becky the waitress (a very funny and touching Beth Wittig) is both enabler and victim of the brothers’ explosive cores, constantly supplying them with the beer and shots that peel away their surfaces and reveal fighting spirit (both physical and emotional), passive-aggressive manipulation, and an altogether potent and superbly written stew. Also lots of stichomythic humor:

JOHNNY: Fuck. I think I’m in love, Frank.
FRANK: Course ya’ are. It’s another day.

Photo by Paul Gagnon. (L-R): Jared Culverhouse as Frank Ballard (sitting), Jake Silbermann as Johnny Ballard (standing), Beth Wittig as Becky and Malcolm Madera as Ned Ballard.

Photo by Paul Gagnon. (L-R): Jared Culverhouse as Frank Ballard (sitting), Jake Silbermann as Johnny Ballard (standing), Beth Wittig as Becky and Malcolm Madera as Ned Ballard.

Whatever human feeling squeezes out of these siblings gets stomped on:

FRANK: Ya know, speakin’ of the funeral, and our dad droppin’ dead and all – maybe we should make a bet for him? In his memory, ya’ know? Put a little somethin’ on his old football number?
NED (adamant): No way. Fuck Big Bastard.

We gradually understand that there’s nothing noble worth betting on with this family. Even at Johnny’s eventual crash landing, although we feel sympathy – he really did want to make a better life for himself – we also feel that it was fate, not ill fortune, that caught up with him.

Remove from oven and set aside to cool – it may take awhile.

Derby Day plays at the Harold Clurman in the Theatre Row complex until Dec. 17. Catch it now, though I would hope for a longer run.

Photos by Paul Gagnon. Photo 1: (L-R): Jared Culverhouse as Frank Ballard and Malcolm Madera as Ned Ballard. Photo 2: (L-R): Jared Culverhouse as Frank Ballard (sitting), Jake Silbermann as Johnny Ballard (standing), Beth Wittig as Becky and Malcolm Madera as Ned Ballard

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.