Andy Glickstein is exhaustingly neurotic.
Not endearingly neurotic, or clichéd-television-character neurotic, or identifiably neurotic. It’s draining to watch him obsess, second-guess, stumble, and stammer his way through Andy and the Shadows, a new play from Theater J artistic director Ari Roth that draws to some degree on the playwright’s own family’s history and inner workings. Andy’s neurotic nature is a defining character trait that can make it hard to sympathize or connect with the show’s central character, played with conviction and without vanity by Alexander Strain. It’s one of the challenges of the play, a family history that has intriguing twists but can be frustratingly surreal and meandering.
Andy, it seems, is stuck—trapped not by his own past, but by that of his mother’s, a Holocaust survivor whose biography is the budding filmmaker’s core obsession. Andy is fixated on the idea of connecting, somehow, with a tragic story, and is convinced that everything from his mother’s past to his father’s character needs to fit into his preconceived notion. He’s the kind of guy who sits fully clothed in his bathtub, visited by the ten-year-old ghost of his mother, while his put-upon fiancée, Sarah (Veronica del Cerro), knocks desperately at the door. “I’m blissful,” he protests during one scene when Sarah questions his unhappiness; “You’re hitting yourself,” she counters. It’s tough to get a clear picture of what about Andy would make such a vibrant, attractive woman tolerate his issues and his abstraction of her, though a scene at the play’s conclusion finally gives a sense of the couple’s warmth and bond.
Luciana Stecconi’s flexible set transitions neatly and impressively through its scene changes—a table can flip to become a bed in an instant. The set is a backdrop for two acts that can feel like very different plays. The first spells out the Glickstein family dynamics of both the past and the present, in dream sequences, flashbacks, and a present-time visit to the parents’ home. There, the formidable Raya (a steely but vulnerable Jennifer Mendenhall) and the muttering Nate (Stephen Patrick Martin) are throwing the young couple an engagement party—if the lovers can make it through the weekend with their relationship intact. The second act is a very different play, with Andy making a guerilla film tribute to his favorite schlocky movie, Cast a Giant Shadow (Andy is packed with semi-obscure film references). The hijinks transition into a satisfying reveal of the Glickstein’s family secret.
Director Daniella Topol leads the stellar cast. Despite their roles often drifting into the background, Colleen Delany and Kimberly Gilbert pull dynamic characters out of Andy’s activist sisters. As his father, Nate, Martin is warm and troubled, halting but firm. It’s Andy’s late-stage attempts to connect with his ailing father that provide the emotional heft that Andy and the Shadows has been searching for all along.
Andy and the Shadows runs through May 5 at Theater J. Running time is about 2 hours, 35 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($30 to $65) are available via Theater J’s website.