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Returning to the (Milk) Well MilkMilkLemonade gets an Off-Off Broadway remount

By Mark Peikert

Time Stands Still  might be getting all the attention for returning to Broadway just months after it premiered last season, but Donald Margulies’ play isn’t the only one making a comeback. Anyone who missed MilkMilkLemonade's sold-out run last fall can see it now at the Astoria Performing Arts Center. [Full disclosure: I named it the best Off-Off-Broadway show of 2009 in New York Press].

What's more, playwright Joshua Conkel’s tar-black comedy is returning with its entire original cast and most of its design team as well.

The new kid on the block is director José Zayas. (He replaces original director Isaac Butler, whose enrollment at the University of Minnesota precluded him from working on this incarnation.) Zayas confesses to "some slight trepidation" about taking the reins of the show, which follows an effeminate 11 year-old named Emory; his Bible-thumping, homophobic grandmother; his pyromaniac friend; and a talking chicken who just happens to do stand-up comedy. "It’s an unusual situation, something I’ve never done before," Zayas says.

Trepidation or not, the director couldn’t turn down the offer. “This is the kind of writing that we’re missing in New York theatre right now,” he explains. “[Conkel] is really speaking to a generation in a really bright and interesting way. There’s a universality to it.”

Thus far, things have gone smoothly. “The first day was sort of me listening, because I hadn’t been able to see the show,” Zayas recalls. “And at the first reading, [the cast] came in and they understood the tone of it, and it was so clear. It’s a different challenge. Not only the whole idea of what does a remount mean with the same cast coming in, but I don’t do enough gay plays, unfortunately. There are very different challenges to that. I think one of the most important things, being a gay director, is understanding the pain.”

Make no mistake—just because Conkel is a funny writer doesn’t mean he stints on truth-telling. MilkMilkLemonade, as amusing as it is, is also a very angry show about what it means to be a child in a dangerous world. As original director Butler notes, the play “chose a bent, absurd lens through which to view a very deep, very real pain.” Zayas, too, is on board with the play’s darker facets, especially as the country reels from the rash of recent gay teen suicides.

“But you want to make sure that it doesn’t become maudlin," Zayas adds. "I’m hoping what I can bring to it is a further deepening of the stakes and a more thorough balance of the crazy comedy and the truthfulness that is revealed. The one word Josh said to avoid is 'sentimental.' He wants us to always make sure that it remains tough. And I know the actors are still finding things.”

More challenging than recreating an Off-Off-Broadway hit, though, is making a show written for the basement theatre at Under St. Mark’s fit the larger stage at Astoria Performing Arts Center. “It is scary,” Zayas concedes. “When you do a downtown play, there’s something about the scrappiness of the spaces that really works, and when you shift that, you run that risk of it becoming too polished. It’s a farce, so you do have to have a lot of things that are very precise. And what’s great is that we all trust each other. That’s the import thing. I haven’t felt like they’ve put up any obstacles or walls. Everyone is very receptive. And everyone is trying to make the experience richer, ultimately.”

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Mark Peikert is the theatre critic for New York Press.