“Memo to American Relief Team: No force will be used in the reparation of DPs (Displaced People), particularly when it comes to unaccompanied children…” The southern American border 2019? No, Germany 1946, American occupied zone; our “clean-up process.”
The Camp Director is exhausted, stressed. She talks to herself. “Drink?… No, coffee…no, chocolate!” Europe is on the move, filled with exiles and orphans looking for a home, some returning to places they’ve never seen before. Her responsibility is the children. “What am I supposed to do with them…what do I know about children?!”
“Nothing could prepare us…death factories…and the children come…and then begins the arduous task of discovering what happened…” The capable woman is so tightly wound, helplessness and horror so close to cracking determination, she has a (credible) tremor. Some detainees leave in the night. Relatives are found to take others. Then there are those who dream of coming to The United States.
Out of a truck tumble three strangers, ages 12, 14, and 16. Each of the boys had attached himself to an army unit and become company mascot. Clothed in adjusted surplus, fed at mess, shown movies, given jobs, they spent years emulating Americans.
The Tall boy is about 16. He’s Czech but judging by speech, might well have been born and raised in Tennessee. Sure that a motor pool chief will adopt him, Janushe aka Johnny, is content to respectfully wait for papers and passage. When promises were made, the Director assures him, officer Charlie undoubtedly believed them, but there’s an impediment…beyond bureaucracy. Anyway, “It’s not up to us.”
The middle one, a cynical Polish boy, smokes, echoes the streets of Brooklyn and has a chip on his shoulder worthy of a slum punk. He intends to cut and run. The youngest, called Anzio for where he was found, is Italian. His parroted voice lies “somewhere between Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Elmer Fudd.” Anzio has no plan.
What happens to each/what each makes happen is the story.
Playwright Simon Bent has crafted a tight, evocative chronicle as sadly relevant today as it was when the short story was written. His portrait of the Director is nuanced and compelling.
Tandy Cronyn zips back and forth between the boys’ distinctive accents with masterful precision. Expressions morph, gestures are bespoke, a cigarette is in the right hands. The actress inhabits every persona, never self-conscious or rushed. Her Camp Director, a strong woman in a heartrending situation, could not be more empathetic. And oh, her face!
Director David Hammond has done a wonderful job with characterization, transition, pacing, and stage business, not a jot of which looks false.
“The Tall Boy– a one-person play by Simon Bent starring Tandy Cronyn is based on The Lost by Kay Boyle and directed by David Hammond, Costume Design by Katherine Rohe, Stage Manager, Katrina Olson and presented as part of United Solo 2019 Tenth Anniversary-“Best of ” Selection on Sept 28th, 2019, on TheatreRow, 410 W. 42nd St.@ 2:00 P.M.
It is Germany, 1946. We are in the American occupied zone. We encounter the storyteller at her desk. She is a US Army official that we learn shall be referred to as, “Missus”. She does not appear to be married, nor have family. What she has is a job and it’s a tough one. The Allies have just defeated the most devastating war machine in history.
A few years earlier that machine had mercilessly conquered the European continents as well as much of Africa. Now, as part of the Allies determination to redress, as best that they can, the horrors of what has transpired, our government has assigned “Missus” the task of finding suitable homes for the Displaced Children who are among the millions of refugees leftover from this war. She must determine if these children from these conquered countries have any living relatives with whom they can be reunited, or at least introduced to. Many of these children, and in the case of this story they are only boys, have been taken in by our army units over the past few years, certainly since D-Day, and adopted somewhat as mascots so that they would not be molested by the Nazis, enslaved, murdered, and/or, simply starve.
Consequently, these young male refugees, grateful to be a part of the winning side and to bask in the camaraderie of such prevailing combat units, not merely learn the American English language of their protectors, but the specific accent and salty vernacular of those who pay them the most attention. Once the soldiers are shipped back to the states these boys are left to her care. She addresses the audience directly. She speaks as herself as well as each of the characters who take part in the story.
This requires an actor of exceptional abilities to conjure the images, sound, desperation, and affected coolness, of these distinct lost youngsters. It also calls for the frustrated sensations of an official dedicated to doing the most good that she can as she’s faced with obstacles ranging from the merely difficult to the unsurmountable. In this presentation of The Tall Boy, that actor is Tandy Cronyn, and we are in excellent hands indeed.
Ms. Cronyn, a veteran of Broadway, Off B’way, Regional and Canadian stages as well as all media is a formidable player with decades of experience and a wide range of performing authors and styles. She is at home with Shakespeare, Shaw, Beckett, and indeed this playwright adaptor, Simon Bent with whom she worked in his play adaptation of A Prayer for Owen Meany.
“The Tall Boy”, Tandy Cronyn, Photo by Justin Curtin
Some years ago, this reviewer had the privilege of being introduced to her talents when she replaced the original lead in the Off Broadway hit, A Shayna Maidel. Presuming correctly that Ms. Cronyn’s heritage did not include a Hebrew tribe, while being mesmerized by her astonishing and exacting portrayal of a Jewess survivor of the Death Camps, I could only conclude then, “Now that’s Acting!”
I’ve been a fan of hers ever since and have observed consistent excellence in all the productions in which she’s been featured. I first saw The Tall Boy some five years ago at this United Solo venue on Theatre Row when it won the award for Best Adaptation. I found it brilliant, illuminating and deeply moving then. Now, it is all that, and more!
At this time in our history, the plight of refugees is of daily concern to those of conscience and remotely aware of how our nation has been seriously diminished in her responsibility in being “the light of the world”. This tale of The Tall Boy illustrates with a poignance that is palpable, the meaning of what trying to “save one” as The Talmud instructs , can be most daunting. The element of racism mixed in with the other refuse portions of war with these children, and particularly the one we come to know as Janos, “the tall boy” who has learned to speak perfect American with a Southern Negro dialect, reflects today, perhaps even more clearly, than when I first heard and beheld his story.
Ms. Cronyn and this play will be coming to Chicago at Stage 773 from December 5 through the 15th. I heartily recommend all who yearn to be deeply moved and further awakened by a stark tale, told with humor, simplicity, and consummate craft, to do themselves a favor and attend!”
Tandy Cronyn in The Tall Boy
by Elizabeth Ahlfors on Sandi Durell’s Theater Pizzazz
“As part of the United Solo Theatre Festival, Tandy Cronyn returned her solo show, The Tall Boy, to Theatre Row for one performance.
In 2014, it was judged for “Best Adaptation” and now the play encored for the United Solo Theatre Festival’s tenth anniversary season. With humor, heart and tears packed into 70 minutes, the story delivers a moving snapshot of a resolute refugee worker assigned to deal with three hapless youngsters left in the wreckage of war.
Written by Simon Bent, The Tall Boy is based on a short story by British writer, Kay Boyle, The Lost. Set in post-World War II Germany, it is indelibly performed by Tandy Cronyn, daughter of stage and screen actors Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. Under the able direction of David Hammond, Cronyn plays all parts, evoking the feelings of frustration, exhaustion, and determination of a woman who runs a Displaced Person’s camp in American occupied Germany and the fierce yearnings of three adolescent boys who wound up there. They had been caught up in the war and cared and influenced by American soldiers and their stories of life back home. The soldiers are now returning to the States and the boys expect to be sent to America as well, certain they will easily slip into that society and enjoy the good life.
The eldest is a 16-year-old Czech boy who calls himself “Johnny Madden” after Charlie Madden, the American GI who had impressed him. Charlie Madden has a garage back home in Tennessee and taught the boy about cars and motors. Charlie had promised to adopted Johnny and the boy was looking forward to joining him and working in his garage. It was more than a dream for Johnny; it was determination. He adapted Charlie’s Southern working stiff speech pattern and dialect.
A 14 year-old boy is Polish and adapted a Brooklyn accent and the youngest, 12-years-old, was from somewhere in Italy, affecting a James Cagney-type tough guy demeanor.
With different ages, accents and personalities, the boys and the refugee worker in charge of their futures, are all played by Tandy Cronyn. She invokes their emotions and tends to their journeys forward, hanging tough through paperwork and endless barriers, physically and vocally fluid, switching from the more mature Johnny to the younger boys with their higher voices. Kathryn Rohe dresses Cronyn in regulation army clothes yet the performer renders each character in a realistic vision through vocal distinctions and variations of personality.
The set change is spare, a cot, neatly made up, a desk littered with papers and a small package of chocolate that Cronyn nibbles from. To the side is a coffee pot and somewhere, doubtlessly is a liquor bottle because Kay Boyle’s character must certainly need a drink now and then just as she lights up a cigarette intermittently.
Her character’s taut narration relates the haunting story from the top, where her transport, the SS Queen Elizabeth, leaves the States for Germany and her refugee group makes their way to the DP camp. On the way, she observes, almost journalistically, the victims of bombed villages, separated families and lost prisoners from concentration camps.
The most heart-wrenching moments come when she learns the refugees will not be going to America. The Italian boy is reunited with his family in Umbria and the Polish boy takes off alone. The case worker must tell Johnny he cannot go to America and cannot be adopted by Charlie, who is black. Cronyn’s explanation to the bewildered boy that America is not a land of opportunity for him is gripping.
United Solo is the world’s largest solo theater festival and this year they will present over 120 international solo shows, including distinguished artists returning by popular demand. The Tall Boy with Tandy Cronyn is an outstanding example of these “Best of” performances.”