Like father like son in The Phillie Trilogy

The Phillie Trilogy
at the Fresh Fruit Festival XV
review by Robert Gottlieb

 

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Doug Devita’s The Phillie Trilogy, a flagship showing at this years Fresh Fruit festival, is a play concerned with fate. It asks whether humans constitute original material, or, alternatively, are we just a predictable sequel to preexisting content. Specifically, are we our parents? What about our own children, and our children’s children, on down the generational conga line…are they anything more than the sum of the good and bad decisions we make as parents?

The question presents itself in the form of Philip ‘Phillie’ McDougal, who we meet as a queer teen in a conservative Long Island neighborhood in the early 70s. Phillie’s parents, Pete and Sheila McDougal, love their gay son enough to push back against the societal forces trying to pigeonhole him, but not enough to wholly abandon their own prejudice. Flash forward 30-some years and Phillie is a failing writer considering whether to write an adult book, based on his successful slew of children’s books, which in turn were based on his real-life childhood. The impact of familial acceptance, rejection, love and revulsion comes to bear as Phillie wrestles with the decision of whether to allow his not-so-non-fictional characters to grow up.

Unfortunately, this ambitious concept is not allowed two crucial ingredients: space and time. Devita tries to fit four generations, spanning three-time periods, and five decades into Phillie’s one hour and forty-five-minute run time, and the character development cannot keep pace. A single crucial scene between Phillie and his father is tasked with introducing the senior McDougal, introducing their family dynamic, having Pete discover his son’s sexuality, and having Pete (nearly) come to terms with that sexuality. It’s an entire character arc that unfolds in under ten minutes.

Also, distractingly, director Dennis Corsi recasts anyone who had played a parent in the 1970s to be that person’s now-40-year-old offspring in the secondary period centering around the late 2000s. So David Sabella plays both Pete McDougal circa 1974 and Philip McDougal circa 2007. This decision becomes the focal point of a play that’s already obsessed with intergenerational connections. It puts the parent-child identity relationship so far at the forefront that it becomes difficult to pay attention to the actual play going on behind it. The audience finds themselves watching an idea instead of watching a work of art.

That’s a shame because Devita’s script is full of life when he gives himself enough time to really breath it into a character. Sheila McDougal is a gorgeous amalgam of motherly love and Queensborough conservatism. Teresa Kelsey plays the part wonderfully, with equal parts love, fear and exhaustion. The older Philip McDougal is a complex; beautiful character whose gravity pulls the play’s second half along. Sabella is excellent in the role and one gets the sense that he could play Phillie’s gin-soaked charisma in his sleep. The kids, specifically Maeve Press as Phillie’s best friend Barbie, are powerfully earnest and adorable. Elsewhere, the double casting leads to some uneven performances from some very talented actors. Sabella struggles when tasked with playing Phillie’s caring but homophobic father. As an independent casting decision, Sabella makes little sense in that role. Similarly, Carole Monfardini is excellent as Grace, perhaps my favorite character in the play, but cartoon-esque as her mother, Lina.

The Phillie Trilogy asks some important questions, particularly in this era of dissonance between different generations. But the play’s heavy-handed execution makes it unlikely to achieve emotional resonance. Devita is an undeniably talented writer with a knack for finding comedy in the commonplace. He’s capable of the profound. It’s too bad he casts too wide of a net to find it here.

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