On paper, the dialogue between the characters of this play’s American-Italian family is sometimes two-dimensional and prone to stereotype, but Claire Karpen’s evocative direction, combined with the actors’ superlative efforts to flesh out their characters produces a well-formed story filled with sincerity, love and earnestness. The play is at its best telling the overarching tale, carefully doling out exposition, not answering every question asked and not attempting to plumb every plot line to a smooth finish.
Playing the developmentally challenged title character Bernie, Stephanie Gould captures the innocence and charm of this young woman, sometimes with broad strokes, but always with sincerity and commitment. A speech impediment called for in the script ultimately comes across as ‘baby talk;’ this affectation is sometimes distracting and annoying, but fortunately never for very long. By contrast, the character of Jeff Goldblum, a young man who Bernie has met in some of her development classes and pursues her relentlessly as a suitor, is revealed to be less-abled by his dialog alone; it’s by what he says, and not how he says it, that the audience understands he is mentally challenged as well. Goldblum is played with humor and disarming quirkiness by Benjamin Rosloff.
Margo Singaliese portrays Gladys with the typical protectiveness of a mother but also with fierce character. Jordan Lage as Bernie’s father, Mike Sr., postures frequently as the testosterone-driven head of household, but when he lets down his guard, the sensitive love and care for his wife and children shines through.
The roles of Uncle Ski (Stephen D’Ambrose) and Laura (Ismenia Mendes, co-worker of Bernie’s brother Mikey and the object of his one-sided infatuation) are somewhat peripheral to the main conflict but they are well-placed and well-played. Aiello uses Ski and Laura to provide important insights to the other characters, employing well-written subtlety that other new playwrights might not accomplish so easily.
Bernie’s brother Mikey, played loyally and sensitively by Forrest Malloy, shares the title with his sister because his character, like hers, has the most at stake in the play. Both he and Bernie stand at a crossroads–Bernie’s life is poised to be forever dependent on others for her existence, and Mikey’s life is potentially trapped by his own hand as Bernie’s caregiver to the end of their days. For each, such prospects are dim at best. But when Bernie disappears with Jeff Goldblum for an afternoon, this strike of independence pushes the family to the peak of their mollycoddling, resulting in a furious Bernie shoving her overly-protective brother Mikey with “YOU GO TO DE MOON, MIKEY!!” At that moment, it becomes clear that both Bernie and Mikey will eventually take their own “trips to the moon” independently and not with each other, allowing them to grow up, live their lives and maybe even eventually find love.
The set design by James Ortiz both effectively and efficiently depicts a family bar, a working class suburban home, and a backyard space, all without the need for any moving parts, requiring only Cecilia Durbin’s appropriate lighting design to indicate where the characters are at any given time. In an effort to support the play’s setting of a American-Italian Chicago suburb, sound designer Sam Kusnetz relies so heavily on songs stereotypically associated to the locale and population that the play at first appears to take place in the 1950’s. It isn’t until a confusing appearance of a handheld vacuum that it became clear that the story is taking place a few decades later. The costumes by Izzy Fields are appropriate and unmemorable, which is fitting for the social class of the characters in the play.
All said, Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon is an effective, thought-provoking, and moving piece of theater. The subject material begs for heavy-handed treatment, but the excellent writing, direction and acting provide sufficient levity to help carry this play’s weighty theme with poignancy and humanity.
Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon (through December 2, 2018)
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-892-7999 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission