Personal agendas, familial dysfunction, strained relationships, and an identity crisis drive the characters and conflicts in the Off-Broadway world premiere of This Space Between Us, presented by Keen Company at Theatre Row. Written by Peter Gil-Sheridan and directed by Keen Artistic Director Jonathan Silverstein, the engaging tone shifts from laughable to distressing in a dramedy of six incompatible personalities that are hard to root for as they do emotional damage to each other and themselves with little openness or honesty, thereby offering no real insight or understanding into their motivations or the substantive issues over which they do battle.
The story revolves around Jamie, an almost-35-year-old lawyer who decides to leave his high-paying job, family, boyfriend, and best friend to go to Africa with a non-profit organization, to help people in need in Eritrea – a country with one of the world’s worst human rights records [and one of only four UN countries supporting Russia in its invasion of Ukraine] – aware that while based in Kenya, he will have to hide his sexual identity to remain safe from intolerance and violence.
As the settings move from the group’s awkward gathering at a horse race, a hospital room, a surprise birthday party, and their homes, to a final scene at Jamie’s apartment in Africa (scenic design by Steven Kemp), the six mismatched characters, who never fail to express their distaste for one another, fight about everything from animal rights to money, religion to ethnicity, and politics to political correctness, with the sensibility of a sit-com and the superficiality of one-dimensional stereotypes. We can only wonder why these people get together in the first place, since they can’t get along and we are only given snippets of their backstories that offer little explanation of the space between them.
Ryan Garbayo stars as the equivocal Jamie, who, to the dismay of his loved ones, is inexplicably changing. Though he expresses to them his belief in “the importance and urgency of concrete action” in Eritrea, his lack of consideration for their feelings or the roots of his discontent with his life at home are never clearly developed or confronted; he just leaves them (and the audience) hanging. There is most definitely a space between us.
Tommy Heleringer as his “dramatic” boyfriend Ted and Alex Chester as his angry and demanding BFF Gillian are constantly at odds, leaving their ongoing connection through Jamie mostly unpleasant and their characters largely unlikable. Anthony Ruiz as Jamie’s conservative Cuban-American father Frank, who converses with his son in both Spanish and English (with Maggie Bofill serving as dialect and cultural consultant), is happily stuck in the sexist and racist joking and inhumane treatment of animals that were acceptable to his generation, providing yet another point of contention between the judgmental Ted, who finds it all offensive, and the callous Gillian, who says she really doesn’t care and won’t pretend that she does.
Jamie’s overbearing mother Debbie, well-played by Joyce Cohen, and his aunt, Sister Pat, portrayed with sensitivity and humor by Glynis Bell, also have a long history of antipathy, as the insults fly between them and they even come to blows (fight direction by Michael Rossmy). But their roles are the most sympathetic and rounded, as they believably capture the women’s devotion to charitable acts and forgiveness, despite their sibling animosity and the questionable behavior of Jamie, who wants to change the world, but heartlessly abandons those closest to him – though they, too, are in need of his help.
Costumes by Rodrigo Muñoz and props by Addison Heeren are suited to the characters (including a running joke about Sister Pat’s “wimple”); Daisy Long’s lighting shines a spotlight on their rare revelations; and Luqman Brown’s sound design provides a background of salsa music and a loud sickening (and anachronistic) shot at the racetrack that triggers more of the friction between them.
There are a lot of important points about human interactions and ethics raised in This Space Between Us that make it thought-provoking and compelling, but they are given short shrift in a play that entertains by going for the one-liner laughs instead of delving deeply into the pain behind them. The underlying message is the need to talk, to listen, and to communicate.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission.
This Space Between Us plays through Saturday, April 2, at Keen Company, performing at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, Theatre Five, NYC. For tickets (priced at $60-85, plus $6.50 in fees), call (212) 714-2442, ext. 45, or go online. Proof of vaccination is required to enter the venue and masks must be worn at all times.