Reviewed by George Basler
Leonard Melfi’s Birdbath takes place on Valentine’s Day, but do not expect candy or flowers.
The deceased American playwright, who grew up in Binghamton, was known for creating eccentric characters who are out of tune with conventional society. And the characters in Birdbath certainly fit that mode. The play goes to a dark place indeed.
The KNOW Theatre production, being presented for on-demand virtual performances through June 13, effectively captures the play’s dark mood. Anna Simek and Jeff Tagliaferro are smashingly good as the play’s two characters.
Director Tim Gleason and videographer/editor Scott Fisher effectively use black and white, film noir cinematography and a cramped stage setting to create an ominous mood in keeping with the play’s theme. The two are especially effective in moving the camera, zooming in for occasional closeups so the action never becomes static.
Melfi was part of a contingent of American playwrights in the 1960s and 1970s who focused on the fringes of society. His contemporaries included John Guare and Lanford Wilson. Birdbath, arguably Melfi’s best-known work, ran off-Broadway and was produced as a television movie with Patty Duke and James Farentino.
The play takes place over one night after Velma Sparrow (Simek) and Frankie Basta (Tagliaferro) meet in a restaurant where they work. She cleans tables. He is the cashier. After their shift, Velma seems reluctant to go home to the Bronx apartment that she shares with her mother. Frankie, taking advantage of the situation, convinces Velma to go to his apartment. The action progresses from there.
Velma, as the name “sparrow” hints at, is a timid, neurotic women, who has been emotionally beat down by a verbally abusive mother. Frankie is an aspiring poet (whether he is good, or not, is left open to question). He is also in an emotionally bad place having broken off with his intended, who accused him of being unable to deal with commitment and responsibility.
Over the course of several hours, Velma and Frankie bounce from casual banter to moments of emotional catharsis in which they suddenly reveal hidden secrets. This juxtaposition was one of Melfi’s best-known playwriting techniques.
Simek and Tagliaferro’s performances balance each other well. Simek is all fidgety action as she plays a character whose kinetic energy verges on the manic. Simek plays this trait successfully without ever going over the top. She makes the young woman both touching and pathetic.
Tagliaferro, by contrast, plays Frankie in a controlled way that fits the character’s brooding nature. The play keeps you wondering whether Frankie is a good guy who truly sympathizes with the emotionally damaged Velma, or a bad guy, with anger issues, who is just trying to seduce Velma for a one-night stand. Tagliaferro maintains the tension throughout while also capturing the character’s weariness, disillusionment and unattractive self-pity.
Melfi throws the audience a curveball at the end of the play when Velma reveals a secret that is truly shocking. I am not going to give it away except to say that it reveals another level of the character’s emotional fragility. Simek plays the scene with an intensity that is both painfully real and frightening.
The revelation forces Frankie to reassess his feelings about Velma and find a deeper connection to the emotionally damaged woman. This leads to an ending that is both ironic and heartbreaking, and Tagliaferro plays it well.
As is the case with many KNOW productions, Birdbath challenges the audience. Melfi’s work is a difficult play to get your head around, and the ending leaves no clear-cut resolution. The press release for the show bills it as “a boy-meets-girl love story unlike any other.” But it is a very strange love story.
Credit goes to KNOW for tackling the work.
TO SEE THE PLAY: Tickets for on-demand view of Birdbath are $20 ($15 for students); purchase at www.showtix4u.com/event-details/53812