Saturday, January 30, 2010

"The First Grade": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

"Congenial." "Pertinacious." "Altruistic." "Solipsism."

These are the multi-syllabic words that the kids in first-grade teacher Sydney's class love to bring in to her. She treasures their open minds, while understanding that it's just a matter of time until that openness is beaten out of them.

And there you have the theme of Joel Drake Johnson's "First Grade," which is having its World Premiere at the Aurora Theatre: The innocence of childhood leads to the confusion of adulthood. There are three principle couples involved in the action, all three are separated and estranged from each other, and none of them is coping very well with either their mates, their children or their parents.

Julia Brothers's Sydney never stops talking, and is cruel most of the time to everyone except her beloved first graders. Her ex-husband Nat (Warren David Keith), who still lives in the house with Sydney and their daughter Angie (Rebecca Schweitzer), is a "working alcoholic," who is having a fling with Missy (whom we never actually see), a younger woman, but worst of all: a Republican. Angie, meanwhile, is in the middle of a nervous breakdown, and appears to be suicidal or perhaps homicidal. If you ask Angie, she gives her infant son small does of ritalin to allow him to function, but if you ask Sydney her daughter is turning Sydney's grandson into a drug addict.

Add Mora (Tina Sanchez) into the picture, the physical therapist who seems sensible at first but turns out to be nuttier than a can of cashews, and you've pretty much got the picture.

Tom Ross's direction keeps the action flowing in an agreeable way -- we never stop wondering what is going to happen next, as the plot thickens and more and more characters and situations are introduced. But sadly some of these characters -- Mora's husband and father-in-law in particular -- seem to have little purpose and the Spanish language/translation is distracting. There is one line about cancer and chemo tossed in somewhere but never explained, and then there's the matter of Mora's delusions.

Perhaps this is the point -- all these characters are laboring under delusions, about themselves, about their mates, about the world around them. "The First Grade" comes across as a soap opera, and it's fun, but it could all be fleshed out better. We are interested in the Dad/Mom/Daughter triangle and we know that Sydney could be as nice to her family as she is to her students, if she tried a little harder. She is good at heart.

This reviewer wishes the show had an Act Two -- to better tie up all the loose ends. As it is, the happy ending is telegraphed from the very beginning, and while audiences tend to like these sweet solutions, reviewers are far more crotchety.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The First Grade" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE and a bauble of despair. The stars are for Julia Brothers and Rebecca Schweitzer in particular, whose mother/daughter relationship is the most interesting subplot. Schweitzer earns the BANGLE OF PRAISE for her ability to convey fear, anger, hope and love all at the same time. Her part is not the biggest but it feels the truest.

The bauble of despair is for that pat ending -- but maybe Nat is drunk. Or lonesome. Probably both.

"The First Grade"
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through Feb. 28

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