American River Marks a Theater Victory for Lesser America

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Liz (Laura Ramadei) and Conner (Robbie Collier Sublett) are a couple of sad sacks whose stories are as familiar as can be. He's a recovering addict and she's an idling woman-child who seems to have never met a drink or a cigarette she didn't like. These friends with benefits might talk a good game, but we're on to them. Why then, do the two leads of American River, the new show currently running at Theater for the New City, feel so fresh? It's certainly a credit to sensitive playwright Micheline Auger, who has structured a traditional three-scene drama but has imbued it with high stakes and clever emotional quirks. And certainly the delicate hand of director Stephen Brackett, who knows just how to pace the work so that it neither loses traction nor skips too many a beat, plays a crucial role. And the cast, which also includes John Patrick Doherty and Brendan Spieth, so spot-on as to be instructional, goes a long way toward avoiding the many character redundancies that could have blown up like land mines along the way. River is the latest production to come from Lesser America, a new collective of New York theater artists billing themselves as "a pop theatre ensemble of renegade artists dedicated to smart, quality entertainment." (Previous productions have included Jonathan Blitstein's Squealer and Too Much Too Soon, a series of six short plays with writing by Nikole Beckwith, Dean Imperial, Nick Jones, Melissa Ross, Emily Schwend and Ken Urban.) The Lesser sensibility has an edge to it, but one that is matched by a passionate sense of storytelling. One gets the impression while watching that everyone involved shares a strong love for organic, no-frills human drama; for them, it may be as strong a drug as the one that Liz peddles to help save up for a dream trip to Ibiza. I'll refrain from giving away a lot more plot information, as the developments envisioned by Auger work best the less one knows about the show. Instead I will focus on the four searingly talented members of Brackett's ensemble. Ramadei plums deep into the heart of a damaged Liz, and Sublett brings the proper amount of abandon to Conner, whose reversals could have felt forced and ineffective in a lesser performer's hands. Both bring an enormity of subtext and a shared sense of history that enriches the play right from the start (these characters are supposed to have known each other since early childhood). Spieth and Doherty provide necessary shots in both arms of River, allowing the show to redefine itself in terms of tone and direction, but always in a way that feels earned. Though it has a short run in a small space, River is a vital work on an emotionally epic scale. To miss it would be to miss out on one of the more absorbing works the New York stage has to offer this summer. American River Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue. Runs through July 22.

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