Directed by Joan Kane
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“With thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate/Of life at once untie: poor venomous fool/Be angry, and dispatch.” —Cleopatra, Act V, scene II
Cleopatra knew the allure of the asp, the Egyptian cobra. Its venom, its bite, was – in her opinion – a rather dignified and relatively humane way to administer capital punishment offering “sleepiness and heaviness without spasms of pain.” That same bite, tradition tells us, brought that same surcease to Cleopatra VII Philopater, the last active pharaoh of Ancient Egypt.
While waiting for Pronto Car Service to whisk Stella O’Conner (Lucy McMichael) and her gynecologist grandson Brian (Nick Palladino) off to the Sunset long-term care facility in Tenafly, New Jersey, the patrons of Quinn’s bar in Richmond Hill, Queens (seen and unseen) attempt to confront their panoply of knotty and nagging life challenges. These “knots intrinsicate” are cleverly exposed throughout Penny Jackson’s “Bitten,” the site-specific play currently running at Quinn’s Bar and Grill on 44th Street in Manhattan. Grandma Stella and her persistent suitor Professor Alexi Negretsky (J. Dolan Byrnes) challenge her grandson and the bar’s caregiver and barkeep Sean Maquire (Logan McCoy) to face their ghosts past and present by sharing a story about a herpetologist whose curiosity about a cobra in a bag became not only his personal best challenge but his untimely demise.
In confronting her own brokenness, Stella uses the story of the cobra – the play’s important and predominate extended metaphor – to enable Sean to care for his own needs as well as he does for his “family” at Quinn’s; to enable her grandson Brian to accept his status as a gay man and take a chance on love (perhaps with Sean?); to enable Alexi to go with his son to Maine to live out his days; and to enable herself to admit that there might be an alternative to spending time inebriated on the floor of Quinn’s whether what alternative is Sunset Home in Tenafly or a second crack at making Queens work.
The ensemble cast treats Ms. Jackson’s complex and interesting characters well. At times, especially in pre-performance, they seem a bit reserved. Logan McCoy’s Sean is tender and lovable and layers his performance with skill. His admitted difficulty with women blossoms into his acceptance of his true status. J. Dolan Byrnes’ Alexi is perfectly rough around the edges and delivers his one hundred eleventh proposal to his Stoli Stella with charm. Nick Palladino’s Brian is appropriately annoying as his fear of self projects onto his grandmother and his concern for her safety. Lucy McMichael brings Stella to a level of feistiness and fragility but could push just a bit further to make her character more gritty and genuine. And Teddy Lytle’s voice and guitar lend authenticity to Quinn’s persona. And that unseen character octogenarian Limerick Louise is brought to life by Penny Jackson’s ability to create and develop authentic characters.
Penny Jackson’s multi-layered script suffers a bit from the unresolved tension between “site-specific” and “fourth wall” agendas that need resolution in this fine production before it moves on. One longs for patrons sitting around tables laden with peanuts and pitchers of Irish ale, lights dimmed, the faint sound of a flat screen television, even – perhaps – the occasional intrusion of a cell phone taking center “stage” with Ms. Jackson’s cast of endearing characters trying with all their might to untie some of the intricate knots, the intricate complexities of life. But for now, under Joan Kane’s generous and charitable direction, “Bitten” is just fine and goes a long way to help unravel those complexities.