Hoity-Toity Corner: When January Feels Like Summer Review
This past Sunday I went to go see the a performance of Mosaic Theater Company’s final performance in their inaugural season When January Feels Like Summer. Besides learning that shitty racist white people have become so bored with ruining other people’s things they’ve gone to ruining their own things and are now ruining the theater too, it was a fantastic experience (there’s a story there but I’ll just get too upset again if I tell it). As far as I can tell this is the third run of the show written by Cori Thomas who has garnered some fame as a playwright after the plays successful run at the Ensemble Studio Theater. I’m always wary of original runs or even semi-original runs which I think is a fair classification of this performance of When January Feels Like Summer. In DC, it’s much safer as a theater fan to see runs of Shakespeare, Williams, Miller, or Beckett adaptations than it is to take your chances with what often ends up being the B and C casts that come with less well known plays. DC is a city that is okay a lot of things, but great at nothing—it has an okay food scene, a decent music scene, an alright theater scene, but at least it has a bustling lawyer scene. But the truth is that When January Feels Like Summer exceeded all my expectations. Mosaic Theater does a great job with Thomas’s material on the back of fantastic direction from Serge Seiden a veteran of the DC theater community whose directing in Bad Jews at The Studio Theatre was one of the most underrated directing performances of last year. And on some really stellar production design from the team of Debra Booth (Sets), Max Doolittle (Lights), Robert Croghan (Costumes), and Michelle Elwyn (Props) a few names I am sad to say I don’t recognize.
But nothing is perfect—alas. This is the first time I’ve seen any Cori Thomas play, I think this may even be her only play actually, and as this isn’t quite the official run of the show it’s entirely possible that Seiden isn’t working with a completely original script but as I don’t know that to be the case I will act as though this is the original script, verbatim. The show focuses on five people living in a caricature of New York City: Joe, a sanitation worker with a heart of gold and a shitty ex-wife; Nirmala, a first generation Indian immigrant whose husband has been in a coma for three years; Indira/Ishan, Nirmala’s sister and a pre-op transgender who is struggling to find money for the sex change; and Devaun and Jeron, two young black friends and arguably the stars of the show. The play is about a lot of things it’s about transgender and gay issues, it’s about poverty and race, it’s about culture and family, it’s about environmentalism, and but mostly it’s about love. The characters all end up getting paired up by the end of the play in predictable fashion even Jeron gets himself a date that we never get to see on stage. And you would think that is enough, two acts, a standard length of a little over two hours seems like just enough time to tell the story of three couples, one struggling with the demons of their past, one with gender identity, and the other with…. Shyness? Jeron’s love interest seems out of place even now. But it’s not enough for Thomas, she does a great job of writing the love stories but then tries to cram a lot more into the plan that it really doesn’t have the capacity to deal with elegantly or with any completion at all. The biggest disappointment is the urban green storyline that from the title Thomas seems to believe is the thesis of the play. Besides a pretty throw away moment with Devaun shouting at an off stage litterer and a recycling of a storyline (oooo puns, noice!) from the first act where the two friends use signs to catch a predator it’s pretty shoehorned in there. Were it not for the fact that the titular line is forced into that storyline I wouldn’t have payed any attention to it at all. Especially since the very real climate change that the play is trying to deal with is played off as a joke, with days in January going from 90 to raining to snowing in the matter of minutes. It is very ambitious of Thomas and considering how well the play does deal with the gender and sex issues it jumps head first into fearlessly the environmental storyline seems all the more out of place in how unsuccessfully it lands. Aside from that I think Thomas can be very happy with this as a run as a playwright—she has a real knack for dialogue and dialect which can be very hard to do.
Half of the success of a good play is the writing; the other half is what the actors on stage do with it. I hadn’t seen anyone in this show on stage before besides Vaughn Midder who plays Jeron and Lynette Rathnam who plays Nirmala so I had no expectations going in. First off the moments when Rathnam and Amin—who plays Indira—were on stage together was the real highlight of the play. Those two are such charismatic and magnetic actors and their chemistry was fantastic it was always a pleasure to see them work off each other on stage. Midder is always fantastic to watch, the mark of a truly great stage actor is to be in the scene at all moments, unlike camera you never get to be out of the shot, and Midder is better at that than almost anyone I’ve seen. The problem is that because Vaughn was cast as Jeron he gets no time on stage with Rathnam and Amin which would have been a pleasure to see. Unfortunately my praise of the cast has to stop there. While those three are nothing short of captivating Jason McIntosh (Joe) and Jeremy Hunter (Devaun), aren’t so much. On opposite ends of spectrum McIntosh manages to give almost nothing on stage while Hunter both gives way too much and also never seems to rest on stage. Hunter tries to steal the stage at every possible second, jumping around and hamming it up for the audiences in a way that suggests he thinks he’s playing a member of The Proud Family rather than a real person struggling with issues of identity, education, and his future. It makes the pivotal scene where Davaun along with Jeron and the audience finally realize that Devaun actually has ambition and hopes and dreams fall so flat as the contorts his face and struts around the scene like no one ever has in a room with one person—not even the caricatures he’s supposed to be representing. McIntosh has the exact opposite problem, the fact that he stands still and stays monotone throughout makes his love story with Nirmala so unbelievable its almost painful to watch.
But all of this said, this is the most I’ve enjoyed an original (or kinda original run) in a very long time. It was announced that Mosaic theater was picked up for a second season I am hoping to see Serge Seiden work again with these talented actors in the future. If you’re interested in seeing the play there is still one more week in the run and tickets can be on Mosaic Theater’s website.