Brotherly Shove

Written by Doug Strassler on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Derby Day covers much the same
ground popularized by Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County
: adults behaving badly
and tossing out family secrets with the aim of a javelin thrower. It’s not an
entirely polished work, though talented playwright Samuel Brett Williams has
mercifully truncated the formula by both running time and family size. And
thanks to both his savvy and an extremely capable cast, what could have felt
like a lazy retread of familiar terrain actually plays as a welcome voyage to
undiscovered country.

It’s a wittily
subversive country at that. Williams tucks Derby
squarely in the
middle-ground between low comedy and high drama, which means that although
they’ve just lost their late father, the three Ballard brothers—the oldest,
Frank (Jared Culverhouse), middle child Ned (Malcolm Madera) and Johnny, the
youngest (Jake Silbermann)—don’t use laughter-through-tears to deal with their
grief. What good is sobbing alone in your room when you can yell at your
siblings in the luxury box of a racetrack?

Which is exactly how the
Ballards have chosen to honor their father. Merely an hour after burying him,
the three have holed up at the Oaklawn races in Hot Springs, Ark., (Williams
hails from The Natural State himself) to win big and gorge themselves on cheap
concessions and alcohol. There’s something both shocking and shockingly
familiar as Frank, Ned and Johnny start revealing their true selves. None of these
guys are saints, but Williams keeps testing audience loyalty to the individual
brothers with each new revelation and unsavory act (what’s worse: causing one’s
brother to fall off the wagon or admitting that you’ve slept with one of their
past wives? You’ll find both, and worse, afoot here). It’s hard to tell if any
of these guys could be saved. Or should. But the more reason we have to hate
them, the more we want to see of them.

Yep, Derby riffs on the formulaic
here, but we believe these guys, even if we don’t believe in
them, which is a
testament to the realism of Williams’ play and of director Michole Biancosino’s
direction. Most especially, it’s a credit to the show’s trio of actors, who
shade in their respective characters’ insecurities and crude behavior with
total commitment. They bring a vibrant energy to the show that makes it
compelling, even when its later moments feel somewhat forced. Culverhouse digs
deep to reflect Frank’s inner demons, and Madera shines a light on what a mess
Ned is beneath his cocky charisma. Watching these actors shine does cause one
to wish Williams’ play wasn’t quite so slim, just to give them more to chew on.
But then the endurance test that is Derby
might be too much to handle. As it is,
the three actors are all up to the physical demands of the show, whether it be
their carefully modulated states of inebriation or Alberto Bonilla’s
flinchingly realistic fight choreography (Silbermann delivers and receives
several hits so convincingly I was about to ask if a doctor was in the house).

Several other characters
matter, as well. In corporeal form, there’s Beth Wittig, who grants Becky, the
Ballards’ increasingly put-upon box waitress, plenty of credibility. And in
less animate form, there’s Alfred Schatz’s sturdy set, which gets pummeled
almost as much the men-children of Derby
themselves do.

Derby Day

Through Dec. 17, Clurman
Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.),; $18.