First Nighter: Nicky Silver's "This Day Forward" Not All That Forward

"Loyalty" is a word we're hearing plenty these post-election days, but it's a word applied by many in myriad situations. When controversial Roy Cohn was doing his questionable thing, the most common words uttered about him by friends were "loyalty" and "loyal."

One place where loyalty indisputably plays an invaluable part is the theater. Producers, whether commercial or not-for-profit, are loyal to, among other theater practitioners, playwrights. Yes, different producers remain loyal to playwrights for various reasons--sometimes merely in the form of "relationship" productions, as the late Variety critic Richard Hummler dubbed them. These are productions mounted of less-than-first-rate works because a producer doesn't want to jeopardize a desired relationship.

The foregoing is a lead-in to the relationship between Nicky Silver and Vineyard Theatre. This Day Forward, Silver's new play, is the twelfth time (including development lab productions) that the not-for-profit outfit has presented his work. This may not be a record for one establishment championing a playwright. (Has London's National Theatre practiced loyalty to David Hare as often, or to Alan Bennett?) Then again it may be a record.

Ordinarily, the Vineyard's loyalty to Silver would be commendable. I suppose it is. It's commendable for artistic directors Douglas Aibel and Sarah Stern, although maybe not for the rest of us. It's something I have to question in what could be, of course, a minority-of-one response.

I'll precede my unfavorable review by saying I have never seen a production of Pterodactyls, which put Silver on the literary map. I've read it but don't count that as having the same heft as a production. Plays are written to be produced.

Therefore, I can't comment on how good Silver is when he is very, very good. I can only weigh in on when he is less--or much less--than that, which for me is just about every time I sit through his latest offering. And yes, that includes Too Much Sun and The Lyons, both of which boasted Linda Lavin giving bravura performances that masked script deficiencies.

I will say that Silver's The Altruists is, I think, the worst play I've ever watched by a playwright with a strong reputation, and that This Day Forward is appreciably better than that. I won't go so far as to say it borders on resolutely good.

The first This Day Forward act takes place in 1958 and in a St. Regis Hotel room that might as well be a bridal suite. The nuptials have taken place, and groom Martin (Michael Crane) is hot to take bride Irene (Holley Fain) to bed.

But not so fast there, Martin. After dithering for an extended while, Irene confesses to Martin that she doesn't love him and hasn't even loved him on the several occasions when she told him she did. Why the belated revelation? She's fallen for grease monkey Emil (Joe Tippett) who's on his way to collect her.

The act, which for a good part of it feels like a spin on a one-act from Neil Simon's Plaza Suite, includes Emil showing up, getting into a wrestling match with Martin (J. David Brimmer, the fight director) and ultimately leads to what looks like bride Irene leaving in her wedding dress (Kaye Voyce, the costume designer) to join Emil.

Also figuring in the act are bellhop Donald (Andrew Burnap) and housemaid Melka (June Gable), who for some reason (to be speculated on further down) eventually get the stage to themselves. That's when they turn out to be battling mother and son.

So much for act one, and now for act two, which takes place in 2008 and in a swanky Manhattan apartment. (Allen Moyer designed both gorgeous locations.) Discovered are gay lovers Noah (Crane), a successful stage director contemplating a transfer to Hollywood and television sitcoms, and Leo (Burnap), an actor on the rise.

Noah is the 40-ish son of Irene and of--spoiler alert? I'm not convinced)--the late Martin. And, boy-oh-boy, is Noah a waspish number. For the act's first several minutes, which feel longer, the fellows bicker annoyingly, until Noah's older sister Sheila (Francesca Faridany, who played walk-on Mrs. Schmitt in act one), arrives.

She's ready to bicker with Noah over mother Irene (Gable this act), who's just been discovered at JFK in her nightdress. Irene shows up going in and out of compos mentis, while Noah and Sheila tangle over who should be taking care of the incorrigible, snarky parent.

To give Silver some credit, he makes clear--or clear enough--what he wants to say with This Day Forward. It's a form of the old saw about the sins of the parents being visited on the children. Dizzy bride Irene made a devastating choice when young and consequently lived a life of regret that adversely affected her children. The unhappy marriage disposed her offspring to become malcontents in their own right.

The characters are so off-putting that they discourage any audience sympathy, a condition that persists even when Silver eventually affords the older Irene a mitigating vision of her younger self and the spurned Emil. Irene, Martin, Noah and Sheila remain incessantly unpleasant, ultimately suggesting that an inexplicit and unstructured misanthropic impetus is propelling the action.

The cast members, those who double and those who don't, do as right as possible with the requirements and as directed with his usual high level of competence by Mark Brokaw. A special welcome goes out to June Gable. Her accent as the tough Melka is funny (Stephen Gabis is the dialect coach), and she's just as hard-edged playing the older, intermittently demented Irene.

Here we come to why Melka and Leo are handed their superfluous first-act routine. The following may be pure speculation, but anyone who's witnessed Linda Lavin lifting the bar on Silver's works may hear her delivering Irene's act-two dialogue. It's only a reviewer's guess that Melka's part was enlarged so that were Lavin to have been offered the older-Irene role, she could have been assured there would be something amusing for her to do in the first act. Anyway, just saying.

Incidentally, Jo Stafford's 1952 chart topper, "You Belong to Me," figures in the play, as sung in part by both the young and older Irene. The reference which certainly indicates Silver has superb taste in pop music.