Daniel Davey Reviews

Theatre Review: ‘Navigators’ at Alleyway Theatre

Seems like Alleyway is looking to whet the appetite of Western New York theatergoers with its offering of Navigators.  Opening a week before Curtain Up! the cast and crew get several performances in the meantime, giving the production ample opportunity to work out any kinks before the big night.

. . .a charming wave through the choppy waters of politics and family. . .

There’s not a lot to work out really and, with its approximately 90-minute runtime, it’s a perfect opportunity for Curtain Up! patrons to take in a compelling comical drama and step out onto Main Street for its free festivities relatively early into the night. 

But what am I saying — even without free festivities and whatnot, Navigators is an altogether satisfying theater experience.  Take, for example, that it’s set on a New England lake, and its props include a boathouse, equipped with its own dinghy sailing vessel.   And a dock. Oddly, or not so oddly, when the Navigators set sail on the dinghy, it never moves – the set does. Couple that with an easy-on-the-ears interlude music and a sleepy starry backdrop sky, well, you get the drift.  And even more pleasing is that the passengers do too, swaying as they do with the waves.  

But hold on.  There’s more to Navigators than inspired set design and agreeable sound.  Living on the lake is E.J., the son of a US Senator who’s recently died.  E.J., played by Chris J. Handley, has just delivered a eulogy for his mother the senator and has stolen back to his boathouse to write.  He’s quickly followed onto the boat by his sister, Maddy, played by Sandra Roberts. It comes apparent that E.J. had just delivered the eulogy for his mother’s funeral.  As estranged son, he’s just recently returned to see her before she died.

Maddy and E.J. are smart, educated, and it’s apparent they are very close.  Their dialogue is fast, witty and on-point, funny and, at times, poignant. They “get” one another as only close siblings would.  Handley and Roberts play their back and forth tight as a sheet, as two persons of like experiences, who almost know what the other will say before they say it.  

But time has changed their lives’ trajectories.  One loves politics and is political, like their mother.  The other despises all of it and the compromises their mother had made to their ideals in the name of politics.  The script is hot-peppered with both characters’ views, the points and counterpoints. Handley and Roberts deliver them with the precision and passion you’d expect of staunch adversaries, amusingly so.  They are both appealing in their roles, because their characters truly understand one another. And it is this understanding and love for one another that moves the story forward through Gordon Farrell’s rich and demanding script.  

And the plot – the reason E.J. and Maddy are on this lake – is that in the world of politics timing is everything.  A dead senator needs to be replaced. The family has name recognition. The case is made by another senator, Leo, played by Tom Owen.  Leo is E.J. and Maddy’s long-time uncle, as it were, and their mother’s confidante through many years in the senate together. He believes the family’s name recognition can keep the vacant senator’s seat in the party’s hands.  E.J.’s life experience and notoriety becomes the clear choice for that.  

The cast of three embodies their roles convincingly.  Handley plays the intelligent E.J. as he stumbles and sways between sober lucidity and intoxicated smartass.  As the knowing Maddy, Robert’s matches him with a just-right mix of being on board with him, while steering the ship to port.  Interestingly, while it seemed some hiccups came and went with the script, this cast recovered from them so smoothly as to make it unclear whether those moments were in fact gaffs or slight idiosyncrasies of the characters.   And regardless of that, all appeared to have genuine joy in bringing an excellent script to life.  

Family, politics, and sailing.  Sincere and funny dialogue on the ups and downs of all of it.   A trio of characters who have much to say and reveal on each of these matters, often comically so.  Add a plot and script by Playwright-in-Residence Farrell that winds its way in and out of each subject and how they play against one another.  Combine that with a delightful setting of a New England lake, artfully constructed, and Alleyway’s Navigators rides a charming wave through the choppy waters of politics and family, hitting on every level.    

Running Time: 90-minutes with one intermission.

Navigators runs until October 5, 2019 and is presented at Alleyway Theatre. For more information, click here.