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Theater Review (NYC): Looking for the Pony

Looking for the Pony is a production that makes you remember why it is you go to the theater: because theater is magic, and life depends on magic. This is not a production without glitches, but the magic comes because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – and then some.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A woman went into a stable and saw an enormous pile of manure. She picked up a shovel and started digging like mad. When asked what she was doing, she replied, “With this pile being so big, there’s GOT to be a pony in there somewhere!”

A version of this definition of optimism is at the center of Looking for the Pony, except that instead of one person digging for the pony there are two.

One sister lives in the East and one in the West. One is gay and a banker, the other is married with children and an entrepreneur in real estate, social work, and fundraising. One cannot seem to get going, the other cannot figure out how to slow down. They were raised as sisters because when the first set of divorces happened, their families moved close enough for the second set of marriages to begin (that part is a little murky), making them instant siblings. Their five-year age difference dictated that one would start out as the mentor explaining the secret of how to tell your left hand from your right and why it's important to know how many minutes there are in a day. They never refer to each other as stepsisters. People tell them how much they resemble one another. The only thing that separates them is that they are in two different bodies.

The biggest bit of magic in this production comes from the two sisters, performed by two extraordinary actors, J. Smith-Cameron and Dierdre O'Connell. These two create a fierce love right in front of your eyes, with nothing up their sleeve, a love strong enough to conquer whatever comes along: parents who don’t cry, doctors who don’t laugh, graduate studies that won’t come true, cancer that won’t go away.

Yeah, I know: the C-word. Well, if Looking for the Pony were just about cancer I wouldn’t tell you to go, but it is not about cancer. It’s about life. And the reason we all end up sobbing in our soup by the end of this play is twofold: one, in a very short time we become attached to and very protective of these women; two, we want some of that very fierce love for our own. And even if we have that kind of love, these two women make you want more.

Remember that song from Company – “Being Alive”? Dean Jones reaches down his own throat, hauls his heart out, and slaps it on the table. He sacrifices his own self so that he can feel love. It’s a kind of self-sacrifice we don’t think of, the kind where you lay yourself down for yourself. That is what these two women do in this production, and in so doing they bring us with them. They crack open our hearts and give us some of their own to take with us.

Cameron and O’Connell are more than aided by two other fine actors, Lori Funk and Debargo Sanyal, who play something like ten characters each. They are the net that holds this story, and without them the tale would be so much less.

I cannot say as much for the directing. That the actors pull the story off appears to be in spite of the direction, which has Ms. Cameron stepping downstage each time she talks to us – as if we wouldn’t know she were speaking to us otherwise. Mr. Sanyal seems to have had no guidance for the many dialects he uses playing every male doctor at every stage of the game. In the end his characters start to sound the same, which undermines Sanyal’s many talents. Finally, Ms. Cameron is in an outfit that reaches the heights of unbecoming. The woman is supposed to have been a banker, and the choice of costume is idiotic.

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