As the characters eschew the pain inherent in meaningful relationships, we ironically recognize ourselves
Theater review by Martin Jones Westlin
Hapless, lovelorn Theo would proudly sample his own bathwater if it meant a tumble in the kip with Babette. Not to be outdone, the calculating Frank would primly hold his nose and follow suit for a similar encounter with Theo. It's not particularly sex that binds these characters any more than plot drives the play that features them. Nevertheless, such innuendo is a major component of [sic], the Sledgehammer Theatre's season opener.
In fact, innuendo has replaced reason as the major element in the trio's interrelationship. An indifferent society has swallowed the characters' autonomy, spitting out three breathtakingly needy victims of the American experience who no longer communicate so much as rebut. Everything-ordering Chinese food, a minor affectation in vocabulary, the idiosyncrasies of a neighbor lady-takes on global importance as each character screams for validation from the others and claws after the merest scrap of meaning in life.
There's irony in their desperation. There's great humor in the irony. And if humor and irony drive your theater, there's a damn fine play under way.
Patrons new to live performance, or those whose tastes amble airily toward the conventional, might shake their heads in confusion at this entry-the script doesn't call so much for a story as for a portrayal. Like Philip King's bawdy farces and Samuel Beckett's austere absurdist pieces, [sic] relies on ridiculous situations and rapid-fire non-sequiturs rather than plot or character development for its strength. Playwright Melissa James Gibson responds well in that regard, her stark narratives patiently molding her principals in one another's miserable shadow.
"I think we all felt sorry for each other," Babette apologetically explains of the characters' unbreakable bond. And inside the postage-stamp-size New York apartment that engorges their ineptitudes, such forfeiture of independence is, indeed, pitiable.
Theo (Farhang Pernoon) is a sluggish, embittered musician whose claim to fame is his lone work in progress-a leaden background track for a carnival ride. Frank (Jason Waller), a gay wannabe auctioneer, is forever (and poorly) practicing tongue-twisters; his mind is a steel trap, pretty much the same one that figuratively ensnares his penis. Witless woman-child Babette (Janet Hayatshahi) is writing a book about calamities through history-each, she claims, had its beginning in a simple tantrum.
These projects not only define their originators-they've dangerously become their originators. Babette, for example, is seen on the phone variously hawking her manuscript or shooting shit with an acquaintance. But the way the excellent Hayatshahi plays her, there's some question as to whether anybody's on the other end.
Meanwhile, a couple upstairs is suffering an identical meltdown. Tersely, sometimes wordlessly, the pair jockey for superiority in simple tasks such as division of their possessions or the placement of furniture. "Your strange isn't my strange," the Woman (Robin Christ) brazenly declares. And given the ambiguity of her argument, the Man (David Tierney) is forced to agree.
The inference is that the couple will part ways, even as Babette, Theo and Frank are inextricably linked. One scenario is a referent for the other, and director Ruff Yeager has rightly drawn both as diametrically as possible. Where the trio's interaction is frenetic and addled, the couple plod dirge-like across each other's steel paths. Yeager and Gibson thus leave room in the middle for the rest of us-and lo, as the characters eschew the pain inherent in meaningful relationships, we ironically recognize ourselves.
Waller is flat-out wonderful as the lanky, nasal Frank. He doesn't so much smile as methodically bare his upper teeth; the calisthenics he performs are superbly clinical and rendered out of duty rather than as a means to health. "When did you start saying "afoot'?" he demands of Theo at one point, doggedly intent on permeating every crusty pore of the latter's failed life.
Pernoon's Theo lives and dies by the computer on which he's composing his tune. There's a scene where Theo vigorously scolds Frank for screwing with the machine, and Pernoon does great with it-but at other points, the actor is a tad too quick to betray a deep-seated fear of his neighbor.
The tech work itself is a major character in this show. David Weiner's set and David Lee Cuthbert's lights complement and enlighten, down to the scrims that obscure the articles in each apartment. A hint of a chair in Babette's house; the shadowy outline of Theo's computer desk; the suggestion of a closet by Frank's front door: all appear downright interchangeable-as interchangeable, perhaps, as the characters' anxieties.
If "existential comedy" were a theatrical genre, [sic] would hold a major position in it. Gibson, who won an Obie for her efforts, has provided the cast a full-bodied, crazy reflection on today's equally insane urban landscape. Navigation of that terrain isn't for everyone, any more than is this play. At least two patrons responded accordingly at the June 14 premiere, seeking any excuse for the unorthodoxy they'd just beheld.
"It's opening night," they concluded with a shrug.
Indeed it was. And that's a good thing.