Thursday, August 20, 2009

On FringeNYC - installment 2

As a neuroscientist, a journalist, as someone who refuses to keep a daily planner but still remembers what you wore the last time we got together, losing my memory would seem a fate worse than death.

But writer of The Crow Mill, Andrew Unterberg was struck by how his grandmother grappled with dementia. Watching Alzheimer’s disease strip her of recent memories (like what she had for breakfast) and then transport her to a time long gone (a cruise she’d taken in the 1950s), “I began to think about, well, what could be worse,” he says. And so, from this thought exercise an idea was born.

For Unterberg, this is his second time around at FringeNYC. In 2006 he co-wrote the festival’s Overall Excellence Award Winner The Infliction of Cruelty with Sean McManus, but “I couldn’t imagine having written this one with someone else,” he says.

Here, Unterberg examines opposites: forgetting and remembering, nature versus nurture. Like his grandmother, the character of Mia is someone who suffers from Alzheimer’s, while her son Nathan, a brilliant geneticist, is desperately trying to remember what happened during his childhood. Abuse and subsequent repression has left the first twelve years of his life a question mark.

“There is an element of racing against time,” says Unterberg. Add to the mix, Anna—Nathan’s wife and psychologist who tries to play therapist to her guarded husband—and the conflict seems almost inherent.

“It was definitely challenging to take these characters who are coming from such different places; but at the same time, it was really exciting because there’s so much great tension that comes about by these personality clashes,” says Unterberg. “It also provides an avenue in which you have these different perspectives all converging together and all trying to find a common ground. And that’s so much of life.”

Growing up in a family who specializes in treating phobias and vanity, depression and anxiety, in The Crow Mill Unterberg doesn’t shy away from probing sensitive issues. During one scene, Nathan and Anna fight over the limits of genetically engineering children. Sure, we all want them to be disease free, but if you could, would you elect for yours to have brown hair, blue eyes and a penchant for soccer? Just how much is too much?

“The goal is that we keep this play going so that these questions will continue to be asked,” says Unterberg. “For me, that’s what’s most important with the work.”

With his days occupied clocking in long hours as a lawyer for a Manhattan financial firm, Unterberg spent his nights and weekends reading genetics papers, consulting with his father (a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst), and getting his hands on as many plays as he could. The result eighteen months later is a script peppered with a discussion of the Watson-Crick model, but also one that includes poetry by cummings and Longfellow.

“I surprised myself at times in terms of where I was letting the work take me, which is something I had not expected when I first started writing the pages,” he says.

Without another voice to keep his tangents in check, though, Unterberg acknowledges that he had to do a lot of trimming and rewriting. But all and all, he says that the experience has been easier than his last. His wife found him his director, Eli Gonda, and Unterberg brought on casting director Cindi Rush to streamline auditions. He’s happy with his show times and his location, the new Cherry Pit theater.

“It’s air conditioned,” he remarks, “which is huge in the summer.”

Certainly, it also doesn’t hurt that all 90 seats will be filled this evening, as the opening night performance of The Crow Mill is sold out.


The Crow Mill opens tonight at the Cherry Pit at 9:30 PM. Subsequent performance times are as follows: Fri 21 @ 4:15 PM, Tue 25 @ 2:30 PM, Wed 26 @ 12:45 PM; Sat 29 @ 7:45 PM. The Cherry Pit is located at 155 Bank St (btw West and Washington Streets).

The Crow Mill is directed by Eli Gonda and stars Geraldine Librandi (Mia), Quentin Mare (Nathan), and Margot White (Anna). Tickets are $15. Please visit for more information.

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