Before opening night, Artists Repertory Theater had already extended the run of this show about a nun, a homeless man, an immigrant and a weirdo in a soup kitchen.
Before you go listen to an orgasmic blowjob while sitting in complete darkness with strangers, some of whom look like your grandmother, you should know a few things.
First, this show is better than brand new.
Grand Concourse ran at Steppenwolf and at Playwrights Horizons in New York, but since then, playwright Heidi Schreck did a re-write. "This will be the first time I see it performed with the changes," Schreck told me over coffee the day before opening. Think of it as a premiere, but with the kinks worked out.
Schreck, a Northwest native who's also written and acted in Nurse Jackie, was inspired by female saints around the time of Constantine and her own experience in a soup kitchen when she first moved to New York. Concourse is meant to center on Shelley, a lifelong nun having a crisis of faith, and the rebellious Emma, a volunteer with rainbow-colored hair.
At Artists Rep, this female-helmed play gets stolen by the men.
Both Portland actresses do hit their mark. Ayanna Berkshire plays the plain clothes nun with a no-nonsense attitude and daddy issues like a cool aunt figure—authoritative, but she can pull a good prank. While newcomer Jahnavi Alyssa seems like an uncomfortable understudy when she swallows words and moves robotically, it works here because her character is exactly that unsure. The self-indulgent Emma oscillates from sex kitten to basket case to the daughter Shelley never had. It's a role that allows an actress space to play or flail. Alyssa tends toward the former, and leaves us hoping for the chance to watch her onstage chops grow next season.
But Allen Nause and Jon San Nicolas are the standouts.
The two Artist Rep mainstays fast-pitch their roles into fully-formed characters and rocket Schreck's script from believable to razor sharp. The shaggy, homeless Frog could've been an offensive clown of a bum. Instead, Nause plays Frog like a badass grandfather, equal parts hooligan and softy. He jokes about oral sex with ducks but also thoughtfully presents Emma with a bouquet. San Nicolas steals nearly every scene as the smooth-operating Oscar, a Joey Tribbiani type who San Nicolas saves from falling into Rico Suave tropes by adding well-timed pauses to Oscar's chatterbox dialogue.
Still, this is not Artists Rep's best. That's largely because the theater's been killing it lately, setting the bar heavenly high. At Christmastime, the 12-year-old Agatha Olson spearheaded a tear-jerking Miracle Worker, and last month, We Are Proud To Present… left audiences too stunned to stand up when it ended.
Grand Concourse can't top that. But the show's worst aspect is that it feels long, lacking an intermission, and that's not a deal-breaker.
Billed as the story of a "motley group" exploring "the vagaries of compassion and limits of forgiveness," Schreck's play might sound like a trope-riddled, slightly classist outing for octogenarian philanthropists. But long before the blacked-out blowjob, you'll know that's not true.
See it: Grand Concourse is at Artists Repertory Theater, 1515 SW Morrison St., 503-241-1278. 7:30 pm Tuesday-Saturday, 2 and 7:30 pm Sunday, through June 5. $48.