'Hope Street' is messy going, full of cliches, anti-acting

(left) and Kimberly S. Fairbanks in the new play by Genne Murphy. JOHANNA AUSTIN
(left) and Kimberly S. Fairbanks in the new play by Genne Murphy. JOHANNA AUSTIN (Mary Lee Bednarek)
Posted: March 23, 2012

Azuka Theatre's production of Hope Street and Other Lonely Places by Genne Murphy is exactly the kind of show I want to like. A small theater company, a new script by a local playwright, and under the direction of Kevin Glaccum, who runs the company. I arrived with my cheerleader pom-poms at the ready.

And then the play began. About halfway through Act 1, I whispered to my friend in the next seat, "Did it start yet?"

Hope Street, set in Philadelphia, is built on so many cliches, so much inaction, with so pointlessly inconclusive a plot, and performed in a style of acting so naturalistic that it seems to be anti-acting, that the answer to my question was both yes, obviously, and no, not really.

Six characters come and go, in many scenes, in a messy set divided into thirds to indicate several locales. The pivotal and absent character is Denny, who has died of a drug overdose before the play begins.

His mother, Jeanette (Kimberly S. Fairbanks), is nearly wrecked with grief; his younger brother Sam (Delante G. Keys) is angry and desperate with worry about his mother. An old friend of Denny's, Frankie (Mary Lee Bednarek), is a junkie, trying her best to stay clean. It will also turn out that Frankie and Jeanette were lovers when they were girls.

Meanwhile, back at the apartment stage right, we meet Jack (Joe O'Brien), a dedicated social worker involved in a needle-exchange program who dabbles in heroin himself. And then he hooks his girlfriend, Megg (Leslie Nevon Holden), on the drug. Jack feels somewhat responsible for Denny's death.

Because Jeanette works in a library, there are many references to books, none of which seem to make any sense or develop the play's themes, except for one undercooked conversation about history and the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia's distant past.

There are photos taken and flashed up on two screens onstage, showing us views of Philadelphia streets as well as wellworn images of Fourth of July fireworks. As one character says, "I've lived my whole life in this city and I didn't know we had a Hope Street." Forget Hope Street. Forget Hope Street. Forget the pom-poms.

Hope Street and Other Lonely Places

Presented by Azuka Theatre at the First Baptist Church, 1636 Sansom St., through April 1. Tickets $15-$27. Information: 215-563-1100 or azukatheatre.org.

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