Off-Broadway Review: “The Violin” Plays Well at 59E59 Theaters

Off-Broadway Review: “The Violin” at 59E59 Theaters (Through Saturday October 14, 2017)
Written by Dan McCormick
Directed by Joseph Discher
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“Okay. Some day we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house, and a couple of acres and a cow and some pigs and . . . And live off the fat of the land! And have rabbits. Well, we’ll have a big vegetable patch and a rabbit hutch and chickens.” – George in “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck (1937)

John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and the novel’s protagonists George and Lenny quickly come to mind when seeing Dan McCormick’s new play “The Violin” currently running at 59E59 Theaters. Indeed, the play also has the nuanced feeling of plays by Sam Shepard and William Inge. The characters here – Bobby and Terry – are lonely, frightened, broken, and seemingly bereft of moral strength – a condition of either their own making or of the society that has unwittingly (or not) left them behind.

Bobby (played with the perfect balance of moral depravity and salvific rigor by Peter Bradbury) and Terry (played with an unwavering naivete and scarred innocence by Kevin Isola) want to “be somebody” other than who they are and live somewhere other than the Lower East Side of Manhattan: Bobby longs for “beaches with palm trees.” Terry knows he is “not the sharpest tool in the wagon” and wants to make “life a heck of a lot easier” for Bobby. Terry fell out of the upper bunk of their bed and ended up “a scrambled egg like Humpty Dumpty.” Their father was “neck high” in the Irish mob and was killed in a mob hit along with the boys’ mother. After their parents’ death, Bobby inherits “a half-retarded brother to raise all on my own.” Their dreams have never been realized and they scrape by with the proceeds from Bobby’s petty thefts and Terry’s short-lived jobs. Both often seek surcease in the tailor shop of their surrogate father Gio (played with a high moralism masking an underlying guilt by Robert LuPone) who has his own share of moral ambiguity.

Things seem to change when Terry brings to the tailor shop a violin left in the cab he drives and forgets to return to the cab depot and the second act of the play focuses on the disposition of the found violin which turns out to be a 1710 Stradivarius worth “a minimum of four million bucks.” Bobby decides to ask for a reward of twenty-percent and manages to convince Gio to join the money-making scheme who claims the skills needed to manage the operation. Under Joseph Discher’s competent direction, the three actors navigate the treacherous terrain of contacting the owner and arranging the exchange of violin for reward. In the process, years of deception (including self-deception) are exposed, deep secrets revealed, and a surprise ending results.

Steinbeck and McCormack wrote on two “eves of destruction” (P. F. Sloan) – the eve of World War II and the eve of our own dystopian future – and have created believable characters whose conflicts are easily identifiable as significant and raising rich and enduring questions about the compass of morality in human behavior. As the action falls in “The Violin,” each character is forced to come to terms with his choices in the past and in the present. Whether that results in repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation is not clearly answered and the edge of moral ambiguity remains sharp and uncompromising.

If a violin is the main character in a play – and afforded that play’s title – one might expect that “actor” to have more to say in the two-hour running time of Dan McCormick’s “The Violin.” Gio could have showed Terry how to play the instrument, for example, which would have made the ending even more effective and cathartic.