by Anita Gates
March 25, 2011
view review on NYTimes.com
Maybe everyone who left home to live in a big city has had a fantasy something like John Marchese’s. A single freelance writer in New York, Mr. Marchese decided to buy and completely renovate a house somewhere near his hometown, Scranton, Pa., where his parents still lived.
He turned the experience into a book, Renovations: A Father and Son Rebuild a House and Rediscover Each Other, and Andrew Gerle has turned it into a one-act play that is having its world premiere, directed by Mikhael Tara Garver, at the White Plains Performing Arts Center. It is a modest, warm and ultimately touching work.
We meet John (Todd Cerveris) in his Brooklyn apartment, sipping wine with his girlfriend (Liz Larsen), who says, in essence, “Well, have a good time, but I’m not going with you.”
John’s father, whom he calls Tully (Lenny Wolpe), was a construction worker for most of his life. He’s the kind of guy who, standing in line at Home Depot, volunteers his opinion that the floor is slippery because whoever did it made the mistake of using a hard trowel. He is also the kind of guy who says, “Going to college don’t make you smart.”
Naturally, Tully will be John’s partner in the renovation. Naturally, they will clash.
Both Mr. Cerveris and Mr. Wolpe give fine performances, as do the two members of their supporting cast, in multiple roles. Ms. Larsen’s other characters include a real estate saleswoman and an elderly Italian man. Ken Forman plays, among other characters, a hometown guy who just assumes that because John is 40 and single, he must be gay.
There is inherent drama in renovating a house, even when the people involved don’t have a close but fraught family relationship. Mr. Gerle’s script focuses on that drama and on the socioeconomic differences that have grown over the years to separate father and son. But it also makes clear that the father-son dynamic would have been troubled even if John had stayed in Scranton and gone into a blue-collar job.
Tully makes comments like “I haven’t read all those fancy magazines of yours.”
Just as often, though, he’s saying something like “Who taught you how to mix cement?” (As in: What idiot taught you? Because what you’re doing is all wrong.)
John, on the other hand, enjoys showing off his education in ways that he must surely know his father won’t appreciate. When Tully advises him to “always start with the simplest fix,” John replies, “What is that, Occam’s Crowbar?”
Renovations is a cozy little story, so it’s unfortunate that Eric Southern’s set design is so grand and airy. The set, a sort of abstract version of a house under construction, is good-looking, but it might have been nicer to see John and Tully’s story unfold under lower ceilings and in smaller rooms. Surely that would be true to the two-story, two-bedroom Cape Cod that Mr. Marchese bought.
The projections are helpful if awfully literal. And they sometimes outstay their welcome. A picture of a clawfoot bathtub lying on its side was on the screen for a particularly long time.
But it’s the story that counts. John does come to terms with his father and learns a good deal about himself. And construction work has its thrilling moments, like the one when the two men finally reach the cedar under the ugly aluminum siding.
In the end, the best advice that Tully gives his son is probably his answer to John’s question “How are we ever going to finish the whole house?” Tully says simply, “One board at a time.”