The American bar is an irresistible setting for playwrights. Eugene O’Neill created Harry Hope’s bar in Greenwich Village where Hickey meets his fate in The Ice Man Cometh. William Saroyan let Joe hold sway in Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon, Restaurant and Entertainment Palace in The Time of Your Life. And James Burrows made a Boston watering hole the scene for brilliant comedy with Ted Danson and company in Cheers. The bar is a tried and true locus for drama.
Ian McRae’s splendid new play, The Alamo, now in a world premiere production at the Ruskin Group Theatre, is set in a struggling watering hole in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn a dozen years after the fall of the Twin Towers. The Alamo is owned by a taciturn guy named Munce (Tim True), a ball player who just couldn’t get out of triple A and into the big leagues. He got the nickname Munce in honor the great Yankee catcher Thurman Munson who crashed his Lear jet and died, a sad thing that still catches at some people’s hearts, myself included. A crew of regulars has the run of the place. Joey (Bobby Costanzo) is a loquacious retired New York cop who repeatedly addresses the audience in Brechtian or Shakespearean fashion like The Common Man in A Man for All Seasons, the Stage Manager in Our Town, or The Chorus in Henry V. Dominic (John Lacy) is a die hard Yankees fan stoked over the prospect of attending the opening game of the season. He good-naturedly pokes fun at the diabetic Tick (Jack Merrill) for supporting the hapless Mets.
Munce and his wife Carmen (Eileen Galindo) are trying to make the bar more attractive to the young gentrifiers who are moving into the neighborhood, even to the extent of changing the name to The Poplar Tree (English for The Alamo) and booking performers. The couple has hired a young woman from the neighborhood, Micaela (Kelsey Griswold), to paint the place.
The scene shifts to the apartment where Micaela lives with her mother, Mary (Milica Govich), the still grieving widow of a fireman who died in the September 11 disaster, which everyone could see from the windows or rooftops of Bay Ridge. The two women are in acrimonious conflict over Micaela’s future. Mary wants her to go to college funded by a scholarship for the children of the 9/11 heroes. Micaela spurns that and wants to escape to California
As the play progresses, the relationships between the characters is shown to be complex and emotionally fraught. There are long held secrets that come out in scenes of powerful emotion. Munce and Carmen bicker over the future of the bar. Decades old yearnings are relived. Memories of the past are exposed in searing detail. Joey harbors tremendous guilt over the death of his brother in Viet Nam, guilt that is justified. Carmen reveals ancient passions. Munce has the alcoholic’s struggle for sobriety. Mary harbors guilt over the death of her husband. Tick’s problematic life gets jolted with the appearance of his wife Claudine (Nancy Georgini) late in the play. Through all of this and more, the good playwright provides comic relief.
The most searing moment of the play comes at the end of act one, when Joey tells the tale of a terrible incident of violence that he, as a Manhattan cop responded to. It is a gripping, mesmerizing story. Delivered within a few feet of the audience, the power of his emotion is extraordinary. The affect was especially poignant for me personally, for I was at the scene of the crime along with many, many other Manhattanites. I feel it now as I write. I can’t forget it, nor will I forget this performance.
In the close confines of the Ruskin Theatre, the cast as an ensemble delivers performances of indelible truth. It is breathtaking theatre at its very best.
Director Kent Thompson’s direction keeps the action crisp and detailed. Scenic designer John Iacovelli, so expert at making the most out of limited space, does it again, with a set that reveals three different locales achieved with the shift of panels, the changing of props, and the reversing of a picture hanging on a wall. Edward Sales lighting design is transparent. Emily N. Smith’s costumes support the characters and the action. Chip Bolcik’s sound design is excellent. And Nicole Millar manages the stage with aplomb.
The Alamo runs through March 31 at Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Avenue in Santa Monica.