Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

This Space Between Us

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - March 9, 2022

: Tommy Heleringer and Ryan Garbayo
Photo by Carol Rosegg
With This Space Between Us, the new comedy being staged by the Keen Company, Peter Gil-Sheridan checks off most of the boxes that need checking off to get a play produced Off-Broadway and appear sufficiently woke. Small cast? Check. Modest set? Check. A multiethnic cast of characters, including an oppressed minority or two? Check. But Gil-Sheridan has also left a couple of boxes unchecked, and they compromise what's otherwise a promising, if undernourished, effort.

Like, for instance, character consistency. I'm thinking mainly of Ted (Tommy Heleringer), the boyfriend of our protagonist Jamie (Ryan Garbayo), the well-meaning Cuban-American lawyer who, like the heroine in the Sondheim musical a few blocks away, is about to turn 35 and is wrestling with life choices. Ted meets Jamie and his family at an unspecified racetrack somewhere outside New York City; Steven Kemp's set prominently displays the racetrack scoreboard, which unfortunately and distractedly remains, through journeys to a hospital room, various living rooms, and an apartment in Nairobi. There's Jamie's dad Frank (Anthony Ruiz), an unrelenting and unsophisticated traditionalist who only grudgingly accepts his son's sexuality; Debbie (Joyce Cohen), his mom, who runs a failing print shop and worries a lot; and Debbie's sister, Sister Pat (Glynis Bell), a practical-minded nun who watches "Sex and the City" and dispenses un-nun-like wry remarks. Also on hand is Gillian (Alex Chester), Jamie's best friend, a well-off and shallow magazine editor who wears flashy outfits and wants to turn everything into a party.

Anyway, Ted. The racetrack is an uncomfortable environment for him, and he's surly, judgmental, and physically fragile. We've no idea what Jamie sees in him, unless the sex is fabulous. He remains a mystery and a Debbie Downer in the next scene, where he's in a hospital bed, on drugs for bronchitis, delirious and rambling. But after that, he's loving and sympathetic and nowhere near the negative force he's been. What caused the change? Gil-Sheridan isn't telling.

But this isn't Ted's story, it's Jamie's. He's confused, he wants to be doing more good in the world than he's doing making corporate fat cats fatter, and he decides he's going to work for an international organization that's bringing aid to Eritrea. Later, for no discernible plot reason whatever, his job and location shift to Nairobi. This life change doesn't sit well with his dad, who's all about money, or his mom, Ted, or Gillian, who don't want him on the other side of the world. Only Sister Pat, the good Catholic, is, unexpectedly, non-judgmental.

Glynis Bell
Photo by Carol Rosegg
And that's it, pretty much, save for some interrelationship dramas that lurch forward fitfully. Gillian, hideously overacted by Chester, feels neglected. Frank's old-world mindset is bumping up against new-world realities, and his Fox News sensibility doesn't mesh well with Jamie and Ted's Rachel Maddow fixation. Debbie and Sister Pat loathe each other, though they manage to travel together to Nairobi to surprise the uncommunicative Jamie–if you can believe they'd just show up, and I can't. And Jamie, disappointed in what he perceives as everyone else's shortcomings, grows more and more withdrawn.

There's also a death, a disconcertingly downbeat development in what's supposed to be a light comedy. And occasional conversations in Spanish between Jamie and Frank, no translation provided. Some sexual palaver between Ted and Jamie we didn't need to hear. Two minutes where Frank blows up an air mattress, and everything stops dead so we and Jamie can watch. And several moments of that cliched thing where the action freezes, the lights dim, a spotlight focuses on Jamie, and we can see that he's thinking... what? Scene changes are marked, for some reason, by a news crawl parading across that racetrack board.

There are good moments, most of them from Bell, whose Sister Pat manages to be both deeply devout and able to deliver a zinger. Garbayo has Jamie's Everyman qualities down pat, and Heleringer can be quite touching, once Gil-Sheridan turns Ted from a humorless scold into an affectionate, needy partner. Ruiz and Cohen do what they can with parts that aren't exactly deep, and Cohen does sock across a good little monologue near the end about parental duties.

But the characters, by and large, don't grow, and Jonathan Silverstein's direction feels surfacey, maybe because surface is mostly what's there. Gil-Sheridan has salient things on his mind about social responsibility and parental and filial roles, and his dialogue rolls naturally and easily, if not in any particular direction. The moral of This Space Between Us–curious title, by the way, meaning, I guess, the needless conflicts we create with those we love–seems to be, it's all very well to want to do benevolent things in the world, but if you neglect your parents in so doing, you're a rotter. Is that, like, a real problem?

This Space Between Us
Through April 2, 2022
Keen Company
Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd St. (between 9th and 10th Avenues), New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: