John Cooper School Grad Helps Open New Theatre in New York City

Readers may recall my enthusiasm for the talent of young actor, Eric Alba, in such John Cooper School productions as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Tavern,” and “A Chorus Line.” In my 2004 review of Eric’s performance as Paul in that latter production, I wrote of a “…remarkable poignancy that is most unusual in so young an actor,” and then speculated further, “I could easily picture this young man one day playing this very part on Broadway.” He is a step closer now, as this son of Jorge and Lourdes Alba of The Woodlands has followed his dreams of a career in theatre to the nation’s theatre capital, right here in New York City. Alba graduated from John Cooper in 2005 and was promptly selected for admission to the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University where he is now a second year student. Having recently made his New York stage debut with the Atlantic Theatre Company, Alba is now off on yet another theatrical adventure as Artistic Director of EBE Ensemble, a new theatre company he has co-founded with collaborators, John Prescod and Montgomery Sutton.

Accepting Alba’s invitation to attend the new company’s Opening Night in Greenwich Village earlier this month was a bit of a trip down Memory Lane for me. It has been four decades since I was a young acting student living in “the Village” myself. Returning to the area was (to steal the title of Denzel Washington’s latest film) an experience of “Déjà Vu.” The youthful energy of the neighborhood is exhilarating, and everyone seems to move quickly. That youthful energy would soon spill across the footlights of the modest little “black box” basement theater known as Theatre Under St. Marks for the premier of EBE Ensemble’s first production, “Elephants On Parade.”

Mr. Alba beamed brightly as he stepped forward at curtain time to welcome the eager young audience of friends and fellow students that filled the small theater. The company website, http://www.EBEensemble.com , has the ambitious stated goal of encouraging “…the creation of contemporary classics from new voices.” This evening of three original one-act plays may not go down as classic, but it did, at times, offer some thought-provoking theatre. The weakest link in this chain may have been the first play, “Moonlight Gospel,” written and directed by Mr. Sutton. Mike Ortiz plays Ben, a beer-drinking and angry young man that spews raging expletives at young Laura (Mikaela Feely-Lehmann), who has apparently dropped by his apartment to share her Christian faith, but may be looking for more. Character development is weak in this segment. Not only do we not really know why he is so angry or why she is so compelled to approach him, but also, worse than that, we have no reason to really care.

The second play, “Pig,” written and directed by Mr. Prescod, was a disturbing one. It takes place in the squalid apartment of Faye (a smoldering Jennifer Messina), and her somewhat effete, would-be-performer of a son, Bobby (sensitively played by James Tison). Faye’s unsavory jazz musician lover of the moment, Walter (Joe Mullen), has taken up residence at Faye’s, along with his band mate, trumpet-playing Pab (Mr. Alba in a virtually dialogue-free role). Mullen’s seductive performance is often compelling, and at its best reminds one a bit of the surly young Paul Newman in such films as “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” and “Cat on a Hot Tin roof.” He gives us a Walter we love to hate: a man who exploits Faye’s very attraction to him, while at the same time mistreating the timid Bobby who despises this intruder in his home. They all clash powerfully in a dramatic, booze-fueled final scene that is packed with tension, and more violence and cruelty than this viewer cares to see on the stage.

The final play, written and directed by Mr. Alba, was titled “Bird Lady.” Its clever focus was centered on a lonely widow (Molly Thomas) in the big city. She finds her only joy in sitting on a bench to feed the pigeons: “They’re my only family! They’re all I have left!” The drama unfolds when a bitter homeless man named Francis (Daniel Kemper) joins her on that bench. The Bird Lady annoys him with her cheerful chatter and devotion to the birds, and Francis launches into a four-letter-word tirade enumerating society’s ills and injustices. Unperturbed, Bird Lady pleasantly continues the conversation until the lonely man looks skyward with Kemper’s piercing eyes and opens up with, “I’m 53 and I had nothing until you came along and had the time to listen.” In a touching moment that follows, Bird Lady asks the man his name, and it has been so long since he had any meaningful human interaction that he struggles before finally remembering, “I’m Francis. My name is Francis.” That was a profound moment in this examination of the loneliness that can isolate one in a city of millions. Perhaps the play should have ended right there, for a moment later, in a violent twist, Francis starts to walk away, only to suddenly turn and shoot his new friend in the back of the head.

Sharing with me about his new life in New York, Alba reflected on The Woodlands as “…my favorite place that I have ever lived. The contrast between there and here in New York has been something that has inspired me to find a balance between the fast-paced, hard-working lifestyle of NYC, and the slowed-down, relaxed atmosphere of The Woodlands. My transition to NYC from The Woodlands is also a big reason for my play, ‘Bird Lady’.”

So what can a critic offer to such a budding young company for future productions? I would simply suggest to wherever possible emphasize meaningful plot and character development over any excess of coarse language and violence. The nation is poised for a new generation of actors, writers and directors that will take us on a kinder, gentler journey in the wonderful world of theatre.

(The Courier    12.27.06)

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About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the Lambs Club, he is also editor of The Lambs' Script. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at ThePeoplesCritic@earthlink.net.
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