Leenya Rideout in ‘Wild Abandon’ at Irish Repertory Theatre. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Irish punk rock is playing when, a moment or two after Wild Abandon should have started, the show’s writer and star, Leenya Rideout, dressed in a colorful sweater and scarf, rushes on like a whirlwind through the side entrance of Irish Repertory Theatre’s Scott McLucas Studio Theatre. Thus begins this diverting, gently comic, but dramatically slender, one-woman musical, as Rideout (beers and fiddle in hand) apologizes for being late.
A snowstorm, she tells us, has separated her on the LIE from Druid’s Revenge, the Irish rock band for which she plays fiddle and sings backup. We, the Long Island pub crawlers who’ve braved the elements to hear them, will have to settle for the all-too-eager Leenya (who later explains her name). Given her abundant talents, however, that should be enough for anyone.
Leenya, lean, high-cheekboned, dark-haired, and dressed in tight jeans and a black top, occupies Narelle Sissons’ wood-slatted set. During the 90 minutes that follow, it becomes any number of places conjured by Lisa Rothe’s firm direction and Mike Baldassari’s versatile lighting. These include the pub, a church, a car, and the shed in western Washington State that Leenya’s dad, Chet, converted to a studio for her mother, Lynn.
Both Chet and Lynn have musical talents, but Lynn, whose relationship with Leenya forms the show’s crux, is also a professional abstract painter. Representative examples of her work are scattered about, along with a piano, several acoustic guitars, an electric guitar, a mandolin, a bass, and an Irish frame drum called a bodhrán. Leenya plays each of these at one point or another, displaying virtuosic ability on the fiddle; her mom’s artwork will also share some spotlight time.
Wild Abandon takes Leenya on a personal journey into her memories of Lynn, whose voice and gait she assumes in conversations with her own younger self, much of it enhanced by Leenya’s first-class singing. Most of the songs are her own, in styles ranging from Celtic-inflected melodies to country, folk, rock, and folk-rock. She’s also able to contrast these colloquial sounds with an impressive soprano in a segment from Mestasio’s early 18th-century opera Didone Abbandanata.
That Italian title hints at one of the show’s underlying themes — abandonment — both in the sense of leaving someone or something beloved behind, but also in terms of giving oneself over entirely to one’s feelings and personal expressiveness, as in the title of the show.
Other themes, such as the conflicts inherent in mother-daughter love, the difficulty of finding the “man of your dreams,” romantic breakups, and finding one’s own voice (“Paint your own picture,” “Write your own story,” a song insists) are embodied in Leenya’s recounting of her struggle to build a show business career (whose highlights include Broadway’s Cabaret and War Horse).
Guilt issues, of course, emerge, given the looming shadow of her eccentric mother’s support of Leenya’s artistic talents but not so much of the wild abandon of her professional life. Lynn can’t help needling Leenya with passive-aggressive comments about abandoning the stage in favor of marriage and children.
Lynn’s quirky persona combines the virtues of a pious church lady (Leenya sings, “She’s a church lady, But don’t let her fool ya!”) with parental concerns about her daughter’s bowel movements (“Did you poop?” she’s always asking). Then there’s sex, including an insistence on premarital abstinence while personally being attracted to men other than her husband, even having a marriage-threatening affair. Lynn also has a propensity to toss off comically surprising profanities (one gets a big laugh) almost in the same breath as praying or saying grace. Physical setbacks, like cancer, form part of her portrait as well. Leenya calls her “a sitcom character in a Greek tragedy.”
For all its underlying seriousness, Wild Abandon takes a lighthearted view of its heroine’s familial and romantic travails. It generates occasional laughter, but not enough to make comedy its strong suit. The universality of its fact and fiction mixture of Leenya and Lynn’s mother-daughter story will resonate with some, but there’s little in the writing that’s anywhere near as noteworthy as the multitasking talents of Leenya Rideout.
Irish Repertory Theatre/Scott McLucas Studio Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through October 21
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, Theater Life.