Review of The Phillie Trilogy at the Fresh Fruit Festival XV by Raymond Greenberg
The good old days of plays featured prose that sounded real but had a waft of parable or moral in them. Stella’s entrance in Streetcar Named Desire comes to mind. We don’t see that much anymore. Luckily, Doug DeVita’s works still embody the grand style of play-writing.
His three-scene journey, The Phillie Trilogy, premiered at the Fresh Fruit Festival recently bringing with it a more desirable style of writing. His almost musical turn-of-phrase coupled with brilliant use of exposition and spot-on timing made the word as welcome as the deed.
The premise is a familiar one. The trials of growing up gay when and where you simply didn’t. From here, we journey with little Phillie McDougal through realization of; understanding about; and simply being – gay. We see him as a child and then jump 40 years into the future to see just how he turned out – warts and all.
While it seems these days that double and triple casting is a financial necessity, here it seemed like a clever plot device. We meet parent and child – in most cases – played by the same person. It gave the audience an interesting vantage point as we see both support and condemnation come from the same pair of lips and Freudianly observe how the parent – no matter what – influences the child.
Heading the cast was Broadway import, David Sabella. Sabella, who pulled double duties as Phillie’s working-class father and then as adult Phillie himself, executed both with great vigor. Initially, Sabella seemed an odd choice for both roles. His soft energy might have failed him playing the gruff father, while his own strong physicality may have been too “manly” for the affected adult Phillie. But in listening to DeVita’s words, you realize the wise choice he was. Gruff though his father was, there is a moment where we meet a sensitive soul inside – much like the father seeing the well-manicured lawn of his son in Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet. His yes-I’m-gay interpretation of the adult Phillie had a mild discomfort to it, which – considering the character arc DeVita provided – worked perfectly.
Same can be said for Bonale Fambrini, – young Phillie – who gave him the clumsiness that an intellectual adolescent might possess – especially back then. For one so young he turned in a fine performance. Same can be said for Phillie’s childhood friend Barbie, played again with great care by youngster Maeve Press.
Dennis Corsi should be commended for casting REAL children to play children. Making young-looking teens play younger takes away the painful awkwardness of the first kiss, cigarette, and deep feeling. Watching a little girl smoke or a little boy attempt to “play” with another was not provocative as much as it was heartbreaking. Here was where the playwright’s style shined again.
The real powerhouse of the production was Terri Kelsey as Phillie’s working-class Auntie Mame of a mother. Kelsey’s rough-edged smoke-covered foul mouthed neighborhood-worldly mom was perfection. Here is where the dialogue also was able to shine as Kelsey became a great prophet sharing her feelings as being an outsider (the oldest mother in the neighborhood) and what it must be for her son to be a different kind of outsider. A moment of discovery regarding her finding a gay-sex book among Phillie’s things was sheer comic joy and possibly the most touching moment in the entire piece. We didn’t need Freud to tell us why she returns in the last act as the adult Phillie’s “motherly” literary agent.
The play – as with most festival entries – has edges to smooth. Too much material for an under-two-hour showing; a clever but underutilized set; and not enough time for the direction to rationalize the casting choices head the list. Phillie’s best childhood male friend was played by an African-American. This should have been explored especially for the time-period and location. In a play rich with subtext, a large detail like this should not be allowed to slip through the cracks.
A really enjoyable play worthy of much more time and expense, like Phillie himself, playwright DeVita should come to terms with himself as an author and put his very rich works out to masses in non-festival format. Like Phillie, his works need the time to be all they can be.