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Theater Review: “Andy and the Shadows” at Theater J

A world premiere by Theater J artistic director Ari Roth looks at the legacy of family history and the toll it can take.

Jennifer Mendenhall, Colleen Delany, Kimberly Gilbert, Alexander Strain, and Stephen Patrick Martin in Andy and the Shadows. Photograph by Stan Barouh.

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
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.

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.