In the last few years, Quincy Tyler Bernstine has emerged as one of New York’s finest actresses, bringing a plainspoken dignity and intelligence to a wide variety of roles: a wartime concubine in Ruined, a 19th-century wet nurse in In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, a postapocalyptic performer in Mr. Burns. Now she finally has a starring vehicle worthy of her considerable talents: Heidi Schreck’s Grand Concourse, a thoughtful and moving new drama running through Nov. 30 at Playwrights Horizons’ Off Broadway Peter Jay Sharp Theater.
Bernstine stars as a plain-clothes Catholic nun, Shelley, who runs a Bronx soup kitchen with hyper-efficiency and a manic attention to detail, but very little passion. She’s estranged from her ailing father and increasingly estranged from her faith — she’s taken to using the microwave timer to insure that she logs in solid minutes of prayer.
But just when she seems to be running on do-gooder autopilot, Shelley receives a needed jolt with the arrival of a young volunteer named Emma (Ismenia Mendes), a college dropout who could be the poster child for Toxic Millennials. Emma’s battling clinical depression and clearly means well — she kickstarts a jobs program for homeless men like the exasperating Frog (a spot-on Lee Wilkof) — but she’s also immature and impulsive in ways that have real consequences. She aggressively comes onto the shelter’s handyman/security guy, Oscar (Bobby Moreno), a sweet lunkhead who’s poised to propose to his longtime girlfriend. And that’s just the beginning of her careless carefree ways.
Schreck’s drama takes some unexpected turns in its 100-minute run, but there’s an authenticity to the characterizations that smooths over any of the narrative bumps. These are characters who feel genuine but still have the capacity to surprise us — that’s particularly true of Shelley, who delivers a devastating final speech about the limits of forgiveness that deepens the impact of the whole story. And Bernstine magnificently captures Shelley’s journey, slicing into vegetables, hoisting stock pots, and moving about the shelter kitchen with a slight limp that underscores how rote her life has become. Like Bernstine herself, Shelley is the sort of dependable worker bee that you might be tempted to take for granted — and that is precisely what Bernstine (and Schreck) refuse to let us do. Attention must be paid. And thanks to Grand Concourse, it finally is. Grade: A–