When most people think of theatre in New York, I’d venture to guess that the image that comes to mind is Broadway, with its splashy musicals, star-packed dramas, and Playbill-packing crowds.
But Manhattan’s theatrical ecosystem is a lot more diverse than that, and Hannah Pearl Utt’s Before You Know It is anchored in a theatrical corner that is spiritually miles away from Broadway.
In a tiny Greenwich Village theater that also serves as their home, stage manager Rachel (director Utt, who also co-wrote) and her actress sister Jackie (Jen Tullock, also a co-writer), exist within the gravitational pull of their once-celebrated playwright father, Mel (Mandy Patinkin, who earns no other credit here but actor). Not one to suffer tributes gladly — or deliver promised manuscripts on time — Mel needs handling, and that task tends to fall on Rachel, who has nearly given up forging ahead with her own life to manage his.
Also on hand is Jackie’s daughter, Dodge (Oona Yaffe), approaching her tween years without much sage guidance from her elders.
It’s not a major spoiler to say Mel is out of the picture fairly early. Devoid of his gravitational pull and facing the possibility of losing the theater, the women scramble for connectivity, soon discovering that Sherrell (Judith Light), the mother they were told was dead is actually alive — and now the theater’s owner. Sherrell is also a star, sort of, having a decades-long run as the lead in a soap opera. (Are there still soap operas? Just asking.)
There’s some borderline wackiness as the sisters crash the TV studio, an awkward cameo by Alec Baldwin as a distracted therapist and a few minor surprises scattered throughout. It’s all amiable and warm, but a bit unfocused and tonally scattershot. Every few scenes, I felt like saying “THAT’S the movie this could be.”
Still, it’s refreshing to see a film with female leads and primary supporting characters that doesn’t rely on hostility between them for dramatic high points and where partnering and / or careerism aren’t the primary issues.
Jackie is the showier part, but the milder Rachel proves to be the one who transcends the film. I wanted to know more about her, to see more of her with her father early on and, later, to watch her build connections with her mother. (The plot the movie’s writers came up with to endear Rachel to her mother and the soap-opera crew itself needs a few rewrites to make it believable, even for a soap.)
The most truthful moments, however, come from young Dodge, who gravitates toward the relative normalcy of her family’s accountant (Mike Colter) and his own daughter (who is also working through the logistics of her first period).
Like Dodge — and the best of the off-off-Broadway theater world where it is set — Before You Know It is at its best when it’s making up its own rules.