Theater Review: The Pumpkin Pie Show: Commencement

Actress Hanna Cheek and writer-actor Clay McLeod Chapman continue their fruitful collaboration with a new edition of the long-running Pumpkin Pie Show monologue series, this time a solo shot for Ms. Cheek. Here, instead of unrelated monologues, we get three pieces that link up to portray the aftermath of a horrific event in the life of an American town that's only technically fictional.

Ms. Cheek, one of the downtown scene's leading lights, is a remarkable performer whose work continues to grow richer. Here she carefully delineates three distinct characters: a mother going through a mother's worst nightmare; a bookish high school student; and a second mother who shares the nightmare but from a very different point of view. Mr. Chapman's monologues rarely fail to grip in some way, but these taken together have a power greater than the sum of their parts.

Not just a series of absorbing sketches, Commencement builds until it takes the form of a multi-character drama with a real plot. While Mr. Chapman's pieces can be read as effective short stories, the Pumpkin Pie shows are as far from literary readings as Greek drama is from NPR's "Selected Shorts." Presented on stage, these serious stories deliver old-fashioned catharsis in a big way.

The small audience at last night's performance seemed restless at first, rustling things and shifting in their seats, perhaps from the shock of the unexpectedly wintry weather in the real world outside. But they quickly stiffened into rapt spectators as the first monologue progressed and the terrible situation of the townspeople slowly became clear. As the first mother, Ms. Cheek sits quaking like a person in the throes of withdrawal. Then, loosing her hair and slapping up a nervous smile, she becomes the insecure student who'd formed a secret friendship with the unseen main character whose actions have triggered the whole bad dream. Finally, as the second mother, she begins with studied calm, then explodes into mournful rage, and finally reaches a kind of closure through an unexpected confrontation. It's riveting stuff, and ghoulishly satisfying too.

The Pumpkin Pie Show: Commencement runs at UNDER St. Marks through Oct. 31. Tickets online or call 212-868-4444.

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