Smile When The World Is Blue

The Golden Smile
Written by Yaakov Bressler
Directed by Joey Stamp
Planet Connections, NYC
June 16-July 3, 2016

The Planet Connections Festivity is "New York's premiere socially-conscious arts festival," dedicated to inspiring community outreach and social change and to operating eco-friendly productions. One of the full-length plays in the 2016 Festivity is playwright and researcher at Columbia University Medical Center Yaakov Bressler's comedy The Golden Smile, which follows seven patients in a mental care facility in the 1950s as they attempt to create their own play.

The seven, identified only by their roles (Writer, Director, Angry Actor, Loathing Actor, Sarcastic Actor, and Critics 1 and 2), begin playing war, sparked by a claim by Angry Actor (Flynn Harne) that he saw action in the Great War. Unsurprisingly, this turns out not to be the best type of game for this particular group, and their noisy conflicts shortly incur the ire of a facility employee, credited as the Messenger (JeVon Todd Blackwell), who threatens them with the loss of their rec room privileges. (His own admonitions against any type or discussion of violence are undercut by the fact that he himself sometimes resorts to it as a tool of control.)

The patients decide that the best way to demonstrate their good behavior is to write and perform a play, a task that challenges their individual issues, such as the insistent literal mindedness and need for control of the Director (Amanda Mason) and the inability of Critic 2 (Yasmin Schancer) to deal with even words associated with death or violence, as well as their ability to come to together as a group.

Their creation of the play comes across very much as play, as playing. At times, they could be a group of neighborhood kids creating their own adventure in someone’s backyard. Their interactions as they construct and develop their art have the feel of improv, a background shared by several of The Golden Smile's actors. This is of course a rocky path, and some of the humor comes from the childish, sometimes scatalogical insults that the participants hurl at one another as they push on one another's weaknesses on the way to finding their strengths. Other times, the jokes skew more meta, either about the play itself or the theatrical process (Just why is the evil Count of the play-within-the-play evil? What is her backstory? The program includes a ballot that allows the audience to vote on this question.). In still other instances, the comedy breaks out into short, acoustic guitar-driven songs (composed by Zach Stamp, brother of director Joey Stamp), well performed by the cast.

The Golden Smile's views of mental health and the failures of 1950s treatments and institutionalization are perhaps overly facile and definitely played for laughs, and some of the darker elements, such as the Messenger's violence, seem a bit too briefly and tidily resolved, but the play isn't as interested in realism as it is in positivity. Its title comes from one character’s suggestion that there is gold beneath our teeth, the magical hidden beneath the mundane, waiting to be uncovered. The Director often says to give up, but the play itself is firmly oriented towards hope, and it shows the artistic process bringing chaotic elements together, in more than one sense. In the worldview of The Golden Smile, fiction is real (life) so long as you mean it, and we have the power to create reality from words. Notably, someone called Claude, whom all the patients love and claim to have different personal relationships with, is the only one given a name. We never see her, and it is interesting to speculate about whether she even exists or if she too is created by a word, Claude (as is any offstage character for an audience) and, maybe more importantly, how much the answer matters.

Andy McCain as the Writer and Jody Doo as the Sarcastic Actor give especially strong performances. McCain adds some nice touches to his character’s arc from cowed to (at least partly) confident, such as expressing his constant anxiety by sucking on small objects as if they were cigarettes; and the charismatic Doo renders the Sarcastic Actor nicely layered as her role in the play-within-a-play reveals her own sublimated wishes. Jody Hinkley, meanwhile, tosses some of the best one-liners from the sidelines as the straitjacketed and mostly silent Critic 1. The Golden Smile is a production that unabashedly stands up for and revels in puns and silly accents, and if that sounds like your cup of prescription meds, you’ll have fun at this loose, lighthearted pain to the positive. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler