|AMY AND THE ORPHANS|
Most audience members, unless they actually grew up in the world of Norman Rockwell, will recognize themselves somewhere within Lindsey Ferrentino’s alternately hilarious, heartbreaking and admittedly autobiographical dysfunctional family dramedy “Amy and the Orphans,” now being given a sterling production under Scott Ellis’ expert direction at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre.
But only a few (hopefully) will identify with the 90-minute work’s central dilemma, which involves the lifelong treatment of youngest sibling Amy (the extraordinary Jamie Brewer), a woman with Down Syndrome who has spent decades living in group homes with minimal family contact.
As we learn after a couple of deceptive scenes (although viewers of NBC’s hit drama “This Is Us” or anyone who lived through the 1970s may guess what’s going on), the decision not to raise Amy at home is made at great cost to her overwhelmed parents Bobby and Sarah (Josh McDermitt and Diane Davis, equally effective), who are already raising two older children.
We meet those kids, Jacob (the marvelous Mark Blum) and Maggie (the sublime Debra Monk), as 60-something adults as they are reunited at LaGuardia Airport – he lives in California, she in Chicago. Ferrentino’s scenes of the two trying to resume their bond, despite bickering over everything from Jacob’s new-found Christianity and his aversion to Long Island to the now-divorced Maggie’s snacking habits, feel entirely real while also engendering constant guffaws.
However, the reason for their reunion is deadly serious: to deal with not only with the sudden death of their father, but the difficulty of breaking the news to Amy. As played by Brewer (who does have Down Syndrome), Amy turns out to be difficult, lovable and remarkably resilient. She speaks almost entirely in movie quotes and has a short attention span -- but is far smarter than one might initially imagine. As it turns out, Amy has also retained memories from her childhood – ones that come as a shock to Maggie and Jacob – that make her survival even more remarkable.
And while Maggie and Jacob clearly think they’ve treated Amy as true sibling, the truth is they are rather self-involved people, far more invested in their own “realities” and individual needs than in caring for or about their sister. That job has fallen to group home caretaker Kathy (an absolutely sensational Vanessa Aspillaga). Yes, she’s coarse, abrasive, often profane – her monologue about how her “dumb-ass boyfriend” wants to choose his “loser” sister as godmother to their soon-to-be-born child is one of this season’s comedic highlights – but we come to realize that she knows –and cares -- more about Amy than any of her blood relatives.
Ferrentino’s decision to end the show with both a bravura breaking-the-fourth wall speech for Brewer, followed by a misguided (or at least unnecessary) flashback, are both slight missteps in my opinion, but they do little to diminish one of the most surefooted and crowd-pleasing plays in quite a long time.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Jamie Brewer, Vanessa Aspillaga, Mark Blum, Diane Davis, Josh McDermitt, Debra Monk
Laura Pels Theatre
111 West 46th Street
New York, NY 10036