Off-Off-Broadway Review: AUNT SUSAN AND HER TENNESSEE WALTZ (Theater for the New City)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on May 2, 2022

in Theater-New York

WALTZING AROUND AUNT SUSAN

Aunt Susan & Her Tennessee Waltz by Toby Armour is one play in two acts that feels more like two, one-act plays on the same bill. The acts have little in common, other than being dramatizations of two early champions of Women’s Suffrage – Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt. Carrie was Susan’s successor in the movement but that is where the connection between the two acts end. While the first act is basically an extended monologue by Anthony with a few flashback scenes thrown in, the second is a self-contained drama that dramatizes Chapman Catt’s fight to have the Nineteenth Amendment ratified in Tennessee. It’s an educational but not particularly engaging two hours of theater.

Kathleen Moore and Leslie Renee

The acting company is made up of mostly young actors with various levels of stage experience that reflects in their collectively uneven performances. Direction by Joan Kane seems mostly to fight against the text, often staging the company in awkward positions and movements. However, there is a sweetness and sincerity underlying the efforts of this unpolished cast that is endearing to witness and makes the other stumbles of this production easier to endure.

Kathleen Moore and Dan Kelly

In the first act, Susan B. Anthony (a solid but mostly one-note Kathleen Moore) is interviewed about her life by a reporter (a puzzling and disconnected Julia Saunders). As she relates the facts of her eventful existence, the remaining ensemble of actors (there’s a total of twelve in the show) jump up at various points to act out some of the encounters she describes. At times, Susan herself joins the re-enactments. Unfortunately, the text in this act is fairly dry and matter-of-fact. Or, perhaps, that’s just Moore’s delivery. In any case, Anthony’s remarkable life is reduced to a mostly flat, dispassionate presentation.

Leslie Renee, Mary Sheridan, Amy Losi

The second act is a much more interesting and dramatically engaging endeavor. In fact, one wonders why the first act was done at all, as the writing in the second act is strong enough to stand as its own play. Perhaps because of limited resources, Mark Marcante has designed an impressive hotel lobby for the play’s action that encompasses the entire stage. Unfortunately, the play has multiple locations, including a car travelling on a highway, so having defined the space this way is not useful to the text or the actors. Joan Kane’s confusing direction is not much help either. The writing in this act is pretty good and plotted well – incorporating many points of view about the issue. However, the physical production and direction are so out of sync with the writing, the script probably doesn’t shine as much as it could.

Walter Petryk, John Cencio Burgos, Sam Arthur

While most of the acting rarely rises above the level of college undergrads, some of the performers do very good work. Hadley Boyd is a talented actress and, as Carrie Chapman Catt, breathes a strong, engaging life into both the character and the entire second act. As her co-campaigner Harriett, Mary Sheridan offers a sweet and supportive characterization that holds its own with Chapman-Catts’ smart and determined Carrie. As Carrie’s southern nemesis Josephine, Brittyn Dion Bonham creates a full and effective character of a sincere young woman who is steeped in the racist traditions of her upbringing.  Bonham doesn’t make her Josephine one-note “evil” but offers an intelligent, charming young woman who is firmly on the wrong side of history. Her scenes with Chapman Catt are the best in the show. John Cencio Burgos also shines in his multiple roles, most notably as Nineteenth Amendment deciding vote Harry Burn. Burgos is a very talented and versatile actor with a unique ability to fully inhabit any role he is given, regardless of the size of the part.

Hadley Boyd, Brittyn Dion Bonham

As we now live in a time where women’s rights are increasingly under attack, it’s a good idea to visit the lives of these early female activists and learn how they triumphed over tremendous opposition. Unfortunately, Theater for the New City’s Aunt Susan & Her Tennessee Waltz may not be the best place to start.

photos by Jonathan Slaff

Aunt Susan & Her Tennessee Waltz
Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (at E. 10th Street)
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 3
reviewed on opening night, April 30, 2022
ends on May 15, 2022
for tickets, call (212) 254-1109 or visit Theater for the New City

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