Most family car trips are never as much fun as they are intended to be, and From Riverdale to Riverhead, Anastasia Traina's darkly tinged comedy playing at Studio Dante, certainly follows this mold. Riverdale is a kind of acrid, Bronxified version of The Golden Girls in that the four female characters all bicker constantly despite what should be relatively strong family ties. Stella (Sharon Angela), Louise (Angelica Torn), and Fannie (Catherine Curtin) are sisters, and although Rosie (Bess Rous) is actually the daughter of their late brother, Louise has raised her as her own, much to Louise's resentment. But Louise's love can be overwhelming, to say the least. And as Riverdale moves along, Traina tries to say quite a bit more.
The impetus for the car trip is the arrest of Louise's son. He is being held in a prison in the far-out town of Riverhead, Long Island, where visiting hours are between 3 and 6 p.m. With Stella in the driver's seat, the relatives pile in for the three-and-a-half-hour trip. To complicate matters, the quartet embarks on this trip in the middle of a winter blizzard. Tension builds as Louise worries that they won't arrive at the prison until the short window of time for visitors has closed. (Why the family couldn't have left hours earlier, since Louise's son was arrested the night before, remains answered.)
As the trip goes on, the ladies also travel down memory lane, recounting fights and more humorous anecdotes over the years. While this dialogue is overly expository—it is done for the audience's benefit, since family members tend to speak in their own shorthand rather than spell out their family histories to each other—it gives Traina the opportunity to demonstrate how caustic these family ties are, and to distinguish between the characters.
Stella is the toughest talking of the four, while Louise is her overdramatic, hypochondriac sister, prone to mispronunciations and malapropisms. Fannie is a fighter like her sisters, but a little more even-keeled; she always sides with the party who rightly deserves being defended. Rosie, meanwhile, is a struggling poet who has fled her Bronx life for the more bohemian lifestyle of Greenwich Village. At first, she doesn't quite seem to fit in with her aunts, but as the trip proceeds and everyone's patience wears thin, her war stripes emerge.
Nick Sandow, a Studio Dante member, directs Riverdale with skillful assurance; he keeps the pace moving but hews closer to the comedy in the beginning than to the darker edges that arrive later on. Additionally, the first act is roughly twice the running time of the second, causing the show to feel unbalanced—in terms of story, the show is front-loaded, while thematically it is back-loaded. Two hours of bawdy jokes and naughty high jinks do not gracefully turn into a larger look at a family fractured at the seams, which is Traina's ultimate and overly ambitious intent. I expected some late-breaking confession or realization from one of the characters to usher in the shift in tone, but she never provided one.
For the better part of the ride, however, the cast is great. Angela has impeccable comic timing, with sharp, physical comedic chops to boot. Curtin is even more impressive. From what I could tell, she is younger than Angela and Torn, yet I always believed that the three sisters had grown up together and that she was old enough to have raised her own twenty-something son. Watch her reactions to her sisters as they reminisce about family members who have passed away; her eyes tell a thousand stories on their own.
Torn has a more difficult role, since Louise is a less carefully constructed character, and Torn does as much as she can within those limitations. Traina makes Louise the play's pivot point, but it happens in a way that is both unnecessary and unbelievable. She also turns the action into a two-woman show between Louise and Rosie, which is a dramatic deviation from the way the action has been laid out for the bulk of the play. Rous plays off of her more seasoned co-stars with impressive skill. Still, her middling Bronx accent swallowed some lines, and she gets out-shouted in most scenes by her scene-stealing co-stars.
It is also never clear what exactly Traina wants Rosie to represent. Is it hunger for maternal love? Escape from the trappings of dead family weight? If she gives answers, I was unable to hear them over all of the shouting.