Free Street Too

When creating new works, Free Street Too follows a rather daring rule: all members must play themselves. Most theater companies would bore their audiences to tears if ensemble members played themselves: “I’m Mary, I’m a 23-year-old actor who has a day job as a temporary secretary . . . ” But the members of Free Street Too have earned the right. Over the years they’ve developed a depth of character and an understanding of life that few other performers have achieved.

Free Street director David Schein knows this, and though young, he’s wise enough to capitalize on it. In Selections From Reflections Pauline Di Iorio plays Pauline Di Iorio, a “newly liberated” 84-year-old grandma from Cicero who lived through two husbands and worked as a truck-stop waitress. Elzora Schaffer plays Elzora Schaffer, a 79-year-old great-great-grandma who came up from Mississippi during the prewar migration, outlived three husbands, and now has her own catering company.

Then there’s 70-year-old Barbara Steele, who has danced with the Ballet Russe, American Ballet Theatre, the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, and other professional companies. Peter Meyer, 64, was born into a wealthy German Jewish family in 1928, fled with them to the United States as the Nazis rose to power, and has been an avid socialist all his life. The youngest of the lot–she’s only 42–is Maria McCray, Vietnam veteran, member of Free Street since 1985, mother of three who lives in Cabrini-Green, and extra in the films Mo’ Better Blues and Big Shots.

So there you have it. Chances are that 50 years ago a ballet dancer wouldn’t have been friends with a truck-stop waitress; an African American caterer wouldn’t have chatted with a German Jewish socialist; and a 42-year-old would have had no reason to hang around with people twice her age. But Selections From Reflections brings them together. It’s a variety show with a slight emphasis on the variety, with dances by Steele, songs by McCray and Schaffer, and tales from the lives of all of them.

Each one has a chance to shine in his or her own way. Schaffer almost steals the show in the beginning with a string of one-liners: “I work so hard. I get up in the morning at three, and I just lie down at four.” McCray has a clear, soulful voice, lighting up the stage when she sings the ballad “Grandma’s Hands.” Meyer pulls at your heart when he explains how he wanted to join the young Nazis as they marched in front of his house so he could wear a neat brown uniform too. Di Iorio shocks and delights with her blunt assessments of her two marriages–“I would piss on his grave,” she announces at one point. And when Steele dances, the talent that got her into the best ballet companies in the world still shines.

But unfortunately these moments often seem like a collection of loose gems that need to be strung together. There are a lot of dead pauses because the performers don’t seem to be listening carefully enough to what the others are saying. Free Street Too works because Schein has assembled a fascinating group of people. Their stories are powerful because they’re all true. But it suffers because some of the actors (even the seasoned ones) don’t always feel comfortable onstage.

Saturday Night Forever (Part 1) is a work in progress, but it seems to be making up for that problem. Written by Schein out of improvisations the group did, Part 1 takes place at a dinner party given by Di Iorio. She announces to her friends that she has cancer, and the evening’s best moments occur when she tries to convince each one to help her die. One by one they refuse. The dialogue is natural, and each person seems to be genuinely listening and concerned. Choosing to die is a serious issue, and every member of Free Street Too understands and respects that. Saturday Night Forever promises to be an intense and thoughtful play.