‘The Winning Streak," the new play by Lee Blessing currently having its East Coast premiere at the George Street Playhouse, stars Dan Lauria playing opposite (in its full sense) Brennan Brown. From its title you might think the play is about sports: it isn’t. Baseball, however, is the consuming, passion of one of the characters; the other could care less. In fact, he repeatedly considers baseball an intrusion. The 90-minute, two character play is set in the present and is performed without intermission. Superbly acted, it is directed inventively by Lucie Tiberghien.
Lee Blessing was nominated for the Tony and Olivier Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for his play "A Walk in the Woods." The play, performed last season at George Street, has been staged in London’s West End and around the world. InterAct Theater of Philadelphia will perform Blessing’s "Whores" this month, and three more of his plays are scheduled for productions elsewhere at regional theaters this year. A writer of nearly 30 plays and screen plays, Blessing has won numerous drama awards. He is head of graduate playwriting at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts.
Lauria plays Omar Carlyle, the father, a major league baseball umpire who retired early and has made the sport his adult life. (Omar? That’s from General Omar Bradley from World War II, which – if he was born in the 1940s – puts him at about 60.) His illegitimate son, Ry Davis (Brown), has come cross country to find his father and to learn about his family, to search for his roots. ("Ry" is from rye-land, where things grow. The play is full of humor and the line gets one of the show’s many laughs.)
Ry came now because he’s an art restorer without responsibilities (read: without a job). (Omar will later, in anger, call that "a faggoty job," but Ry declares he is not gay. He hasn’t married, he says, because he’s afraid.) The reason Ry gives for the search is his son, Edward, but that isn’t the reason, as the play will reveal. Why has Omar agreed to meet Ry? Curiosity. "You got a piece of you roaming around in the universe," he announces. The reason he wants Ry to stay is baseball: Omar believes Ry brings luck and as long as he stays his (Omar’s) team’s winning streak will continue. When Ry threatens to leave, saying he is called back by his job, Omar is angry. Ry, too, later become angry. "I don’t want a father -I know it’s all shit." He doesn’t want to be around "watching your father grow old." As the play progresses, it deepens. Emotions are shifting, ambivalent.
The two have never met before. Ry is the product of a one-night stand between Omar and a willing 17-year old some 30 years before. Omar left early the next morning and made no attempt to find the mother, to marry her, nor even to know about or be in touch with Ry. (Throughout the play he invents scenes in which he is in his son’s life, but they are, sadly and touchingly, mere imaginings.) Ry’s mother raised him and to her his father is no more than an invisible spot on the wall, the sperm donor. Now, as Omar mentions offhandedly to Ry, he is dying.
Slowly, by his persistent questioning, Ry wrings information from Omar, who uses the name "Omar Carlyle," his stepfather’s name, the stepfather who beat him. His real father was Hawkins, he tells Ry. Now an aging roue who has gone sloppily through his life, Omar lacks family, as does Ry (except for his mother) but doesn’t miss it. The play shifts from attraction to denial. And back. The audience is fascinated with Omar’s invented vignettes. As it will turn out, Omar isn’t the only one inventing.
The two men are quite different and not just in age. Omar is large, thickset, loud, dissolute, easily angry, explosive, given to vigorous, expansive gestures and full body language. Omar’s character dominates the stage for most of the play. Ry is slimmer, more composed, earnest, for most of the play intent on his search.
Dan Lauria is best known for his role as Dad in the Emmy-Award-winning ABC television show "The Wonder Years." He has performed, written, and directed in over 50 professional productions in off-Broadway and regional productions, including "Inspecting Carol" at George Street. He has appeared in over 70 television programs and has a score of film credits. For 10 years he was artistic director of the Playwright’s Kitchen Ensemble of Los Angeles. Says the program notes: "Dan does not perform in plays written by old, dead, white guys."
Brennan Brown, here making his debut at George Street, has numerous New York and regional credits. He’s also appeared around the country, and his television credits include "Law and Order" where he’s a regular in the "Criminal Intent" segments.
The play takes place in an airport cocktail lounge, the high overlook (with fixed tilting telescope) of a cemetery (where Ry learns his preemie three-day-old half sister is buried); in Omar’s apartment overlooking the baseball stadium, on a dock, in a coffee bar. (In a particularly fine directorial touch Omar dusts off the gravestone as he once dusted off home plate.)
A large, graduated – low to high – revolving center platform provides the backdrop or platform for these scenes. There is an occasional prop – an easy chair, a tiny table and chairs, but the outside world is totally blocked out. Theirs is a focused, emotional, exclusive, cheerless conflict (despite humorous lines) with only baseball (on radio, TV, or twice in or from the stadium) intruding. Sarah L. Lambert has designed this stark set complemented by Tom Sturge’s light design of always more or less steady, bright, harsh white light on the two men. The costumes (by Moe Schnell) are appropriate (everyday casual with sometime jackets for outside).
Ry, at the play’s end, admits his lies to Omar although he has spent the play’s length excoriating Omar, making him feel guilty for his lack of fathering. He now becomes the caretaker for Omar, makes doctor’s appointments for him, and at the end it is Ry who admits he was driven by the sound of an empty life to an accident, ruining a Rubens painting he was restoring, and so was fired.
Finally, the movement of the play is clear: the two men need each other. Ry needs Omar. Ry now wants to stay (beyond the baseball season) to continue to care for Omar. (He might get a job at a nearby museum.) Omar, physically failing with age and disease, although he doesn’t acknowledge his need, needs Ry.
As the play turns, it is Ry, not Omar, who has been telling the biggest lies (about his whole adult life, lies that haven’t been just imaginings.) Here the play’s contrivance shows. Were his lies necessary? Or only for balance? Omar remains unrepentant for his life: "I like the kid I invented. You invented nothing." Ry, now dominating the stage, apologizes with anguish for punishing and accusing his father for his lifelong absence. "I’m sorry. I’m sorry."
Even though Blessing wrote this play after the death of his own father, whose final months were eased by following his favorite baseball team’s winning streak, and even though baseball serves as a backdrop to the action, you don’t need to be a sports fan of any sort to appreciate the drama. Here at George Street the action is not on the field. Rather it’s the favorite play subject of George Street artistic director David Saint – relationships, which are forged anew before our eyes. Call "The Winning Streak" a hit.
The Winning Streak, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $28 to $56. 8 p.m.