Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Morning Sun

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - November 3, 2021

Edie Falco
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Morning Sun, Simon Stephens's kind-of-drama now at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage 1, belongs to an elusive, slippery theatrical genre: It's a patchwork. Not quite a chronological narrative, not an issue play, it's a character study, but with some oddly banal characters. A family saga of the past 70 or so years in New York City, with a side trip to Colorado, it gives three fine actors—Blair Brown, Edie Falco, and Marin Ireland, for gosh sakes—several chances to shine. Utterly unintelligible for the first 15 minutes or so, it does settle down and become progressively more straightforward and coherent, and ends in rather a blaze of glory. But you'll be scratching your head for significant stretches of the hour forty, going, "Wait: Who is she now, where are we, why are we here, and what is Mr. Stephens, who wrote Heisenberg and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in more lucid days, trying to convey?"

Ms. Falco, thank goodness, is exclusively Charley McBride, a safe harbor among the ever-shifting dramatis personae around her. The product of her mother Claudette (Brown) and her loving but barely sketched out father Harold, Charley is rebellious in the conventional ways that kids in '60s and '70s plays are: She hangs out with her best friend, smokes weed, is smart but doesn't apply herself, becomes a receptionist at St. Vincent's just as AIDS is beginning to ravage the city, and, in another well-worn theatrical convention, has a one-night stand with an airline pilot that leaves her pregnant. On her way to an abortion at NYU Hospital, she beholds the brilliant morning sun shimmering up Seventh Avenue and decides, I'm having this child.

Thus the title, or one iteration of it. Morning Sun is also an Edward Hopper painting—Edward Hopper, of Nyack, Claudette's hometown, which appears to have some added significance I can't figure out—that hangs in a museum where Charley becomes smitten with Brian, a guard. Brian spends the next 10 years with her and becomes a kind of surrogate father to her daughter, Tessa—engaging and loving one moment, surly and unreliable the next. How do we learn all of this? Through voluminous exposition, as Charley remains Charley but unburdens her cares to a panoply of supporting characters, with Brown and Ireland trying on new identities and genders at such a furious pace that it's hard to keep up. Plus which, under Lila Neugebauer's hazy direction, they don't vary their personas a great deal.

Blair Brown and Marin Ireland
Photo by Matthew Murphy
It took me a half hour, for instance, to figure out that it was Uncle Stanley, not Claudette, who had passed away in 1965. Further confusing the situation is the number of conversations between living and dead characters—mostly, the dead revisit the living to exhort them to tell other living people things they haven't told them. More happens: 9/11, of course; and Charley's encounter with Eddy, a goodhearted medical supplies deliveryman with whom she lives more or less happily ever after; and Tessa's worsening job dissatisfaction and depression. And small talk. So much small talk. Will Brian get his hands on the McBrides' valuable fifth-floor walkup on West 11th Street? Will Frankie's, the Upper East Side trattoria where Brian woos Charley with meatballs and sangria, survive? Will Casey, Charley's best bud from high school, overcome her judgmentalism about Charley having a child out of wedlock? Do we really care about any of this?

Much of it is taking place in the landscape of the mind, so there's no need for an elaborate set. But couldn't dots (that's the scenic design credit, dots) have come up with something more arresting than the random array of benches, chairs, table, floor lamp, beige carpet, and a far-left spinet that gets toyed with for 10 seconds and then is forgotten? Kaye Voyce's costumes are right about 30 percent of the time, depending on who's playing what at the moment, and Lap Chi Chu's lighting shows off some interesting effects, to what dramatic purpose it's not always clear.

The identities do start clearing up about three-quarters of the way in, and the various plights of the McBrides, while basically prosaic, acquire something of a momentum. Falco has a final monologue, a medley of verities the dying Charley wants to communicate to her loved ones after communicative powers have failed her, that may leave you teary. Some modestly intriguing leitmotifs pop up: alcohol (Charley drinks too much), men who get weepy, Joni Mitchell, how women of a certain age become invisible, and characters repeatedly wondering, "am I safe?." And some diverting New York references, if you've lived here over the past 50 years: Van Leeuwen's, Peter McManus, the White Horse, etc.

No disrespect to Ms. Brown or Ms. Ireland in saying that Falco leaves the largest impression. But, then, she has the most to play, while the other two are too busy doffing and reasserting new identities to sculpt finished portraits. And Stephens's dialogue, when not repetitive or expository, tends to be, like dots's set, beige. I'm so glad to be back at MTC Stage 1 enjoying these three capable performers, watching them try to pump some excitement into what is, in the end, a muted piece, curiously devoid of emotion. But let's hope that its next offering—Joshua Harmon's Prayer for the French Republic, directed by David Cromer—possesses a little more bite.

Morning Sun
Through December 19, 2021
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: