Reach the top of the stairs of Quinn’s Bar and Grill and you’ll no longer be in the heart of midtown, elbow to elbow with the crowds maneuvering through the streets; swivel-headed tourists getting in the way of fast walking commuters rushing for the A train. No, somehow, mid-staircase you’ll be transported to a small bar in Queens run by the personable Sean, patronized by the chatty Stella and transfigured by the team of Penny Jackson’s Bitten.
Come early and you’ll get some personal attention from bartender Sean and barfly Stella (played by Logan McCoy and Lucy McMichael respectively). Depending on the day you may get some candy, and you’ll definitely get a bit of a chat up. How you interact with the players before the show begins is up to you – feel free to give real answers to their just-passing-the-time questions … or as real as you feel like giving. After all, this is theatre and your participation in it beforehand can be as much or as little as you wish. It’s not your job to be entertaining after all … it’s all just a bit of fun before the actual story is brought to life around you in this site-specific play. Bring your thirst, however – the bar that flanks the wall is fully functional and well stocked.
BITTEN begins with a joyful jig before it unfolds into a seemingly straightforward story. But like the rings of condensation left on a bar, these interlocking stories are ingrained enough to leave their mark. Look closer and each facet of this tale has an undercurrent that tells of a hidden longing that is either the promise of a new world or the foreboding of an unfortunate eventuality.
Bartender Sean (a delightful, affable McCoy) is attentive to his favorite aging barfly, Stella (played by McMichael as a whirling dervish of tipsy flirtation). The elderly lady has obviously had one … or more … too many as she dashes about and burbles about this and that in a lilting brogue that mirrors young Sean’s. While at first glance it may seem that tonight is about as ordinary as many of the evenings which have come before it, we soon find that before the night is through Stella will be faced with two proposals – one of marriage and one of moving to a retirement home in New Jersey at the request of her grandson. All of this will unfold in the 10 minutes it takes to wait for car service to arrive. But if you’ve ever waited for a livery cab to take you from Queens to New Jersey at night as the snowfall begins to threaten an impending storm, you know those 10 minutes are arbitrary and more than enough time to tell a good story.
Sean, early 20s, may seem like a good natured regular Joe just off the boat from Ireland, but when he’s not wiping down the bar and passing out the Irish whiskey he lets a little dream of continuing his education at Fordam creep into his thoughts. Given the chance to dream a bit, and encouraged along by Mrs. O’Conner (Stella! she’ll remind him) you can see the mixture of resignation and doubt on his face. Is he really meant to do more than what is required to keep alive the legacy of sustaining the bones of the family bar? No doubt he’s smart enough to make the change, but is he willing to take the risk?
Bar patron Professor Alexi Negretsky, (a deeply charming J. Dolan Byrnes) is a man who’s lost his hearing aid for the sixth time and his heart to Stella more times than he can count. Alexi is also dreaming a dream that’s just out of reach. No longer teaching Molecular Biology in Russia he now spends his days fixing copiers and his nights sitting in Quinn’s wooing Stella and proposing to her as often as he can in the hopes of marrying her. While she persistently declines she is no doubt quite fond of him and the two, according to Sean “… enjoy their toasts. Their many toasts. Sometimes they’re spread out on the floor like corpses”. This isn’t quite as sinister as it sounds, for while it seems that each contributes to the other’s vice perhaps Billy Joel put it best when he noted “they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness … but it’s better than drinking alone.”
Director Joan Kane has saturated Jackson’s elder lovers with all the hallmarks of young infatuation – they are romantic, affectionate, giddy, giggly, distracted by each other and even rather impetuous. There are moments when one can not be sure that the intoxication is from the drink which they both adore, or the shared merriment of rubbing a new sheen on an old feeling. Perhaps, in the case of these two, it’s a little of both – as the Professor is known to pass out in the bar around 6:30 each night, and his affectionate pet name for his amour is “Stella Stoli” after the vodka. Still, relationships have been built on less and there’s no denying that there is a deep fondness underneath all the crowing, the posturing and the apparent foolhardiness.
The Professor speaks with the flowered tongue of a man in love, setting Stella off like a top as she whirls about the bar in a fit of girlish ebullience. It’s part inviting, part unseemly and – to Stella’s grandson Brian – it’s downright disturbing and uncomfortable.
When Brian (Nick Palladino who perfectly paces the unwrapping of his tightly-wrapped character) enters Quinn’s this snowy evening he’s a man on a mission: to get his grandmother Stella out of the bar. Not just for the night but for good; tonight is the last chance they have to meet with Dr. Patel of Sunset House – an old age home (Supervised Adult Community corrects Brian) “with a garden and a greenhouse and the recreational room with HDTV”. Brian, raised by Stella and the now-deceased Frank after his mother ran off, wants nothing but the best for the grandmother who cared for and nurtured him. He also needs to save Stella from the eviction that looms and the whisky that beckons. Brian has his own hands full – as well as tied. He’s a doctor with a full patient load and when he’s not attending to women as a gynecologist he’s volunteering his time at a rape crisis center. He sees his fair share of women in pain, in need, and past the point of no return. As he works to balance all of that, he now must fold in the management of hearing stories about his grandmother who drinks too much and stumbles home at 3:00am … who forgets appointments, who sets the tea cozy too close to the burner and almost burns down her apartment … and who would just make everything easier if she went to Sunset House. Brian is also struggling with his sexuality, but love is something that doesn’t fit neatly or start and end cleanly and so therefore he’s compartmentalized it as he has so much of his feelings and emotions.
On the surface, perhaps these four wouldn’t overlap much on a Venn Diagram. Some like to drink. Some are related. Some are from Ireland. Stella is the connection that’s easy to spot. But underneath, they’re all wondering if the future is already written, or something that sheer force of will can change. Is Sean destined to work behind a bar? Is Stella destined to pass along silently into her sunset years at Sunset House? Is Brian destined to only keep faithful to the parts of his life he can control: his job, his neatly measured out moments and appointments and time-marked meetings without giving in to the recklessness of letting love make you feel stupid and foolish … and lovely and awful and terrified and glorious?
Penny Jackson’s characters quite unexpectedly take the audience on a journey that will certainly hit a note with anyone who has ever felt at a crossroads – unsure about that next step, unable to ask for help, unwilling to admit that help is something that doesn’t automatically appear – and certainly not always in the form we desire. Each of these characters, despite their differences in age, in background, and in dreams feels somewhat marginalized, perhaps a bit criticized, and even the youngest among them feel the years marching on with choices not as plentiful as they’d once hoped. Each character is leaving Quinn’s with a fear – or at least a tremor – of the unknown.
BITTEN isn’t about an elderly woman who must decide if she can face her golden years in a retirement home. At its heart, BITTEN is about our human need to feel we have a choice, and that we have another one after that one. It is about the fervent wish that we all have an endless amount of choices – all filled with the possibilities of what we wish for ourselves. BITTEN is also about how we handle ourselves the moment we realize that while we still have choices, they may no longer overlap with our hopes. Eventually we’re all bound to find ourselves on that path. Maybe, before you head out on that path, though … grab one last drink at Quinn’s.
Ego Actus presents a site-specific production
by Penny Jackson
directed by Joan Kane
Quinn’s Bar and Grill (2nd Floor)
356 W 44th St
New York, NY
Thursday, Friday and Saturday FEB 6 – 22nd at 8:00pm.
All tickets are $10 cash at the door.
For reservations call (646) 246-4131.