by Jake Lipman · June 16, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #116 Jake Lipman looks at Power Plays at the Clurman Theatre
Over the weekend, I attended Power Plays, the world premieres of 5 new short plays produced by Theater Breaking Through Barriers, at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row.
As the evening unfolded, I was reminded how tricky it is to create a compelling conflict (and resolution) over the course of a mere 15-minute piece. Theater Breaking Through Barriers (formerly known as Theatre By The Blind) has a mission to advance actors and writers with disabilities, changing the image of people with disabilities from dependence to independence. Some of the works fully realized TBTB’s mission, its actors ably wrestling with writing in a sweaty and exciting way, notably with the works of Brunstetter and Graham. A few less-convincing match-ups took me out of the action, leading to a dusty finish.
Bekah Brunstetter’s Murder is about two old friends, established writer Bridget (Anita Hollander) and a newbie novelist, Lonnie (Pamela Sabaugh). The two women meet to catch up over a seemingly celebratory glass of wine. In a sublime demonstration of text versus subtext, the women engage in combat, landing both verbal and physical blows. As the seasoned author, Hollander relishes her quips and slaps, a welcome answer to the false modesty of Sabaugh’s newly successful author. Brunstetter has a light, yet searing finesse, and well-paced direction by Christina Roussos kicked the evening off with a bang.
Playwright Neil LaBute has a reputation as being intentionally insensitive, so I was surprised to see his name on the roster, given TBTB’s mission. Actress Ann Marie Morelli plays “One,” a woman confronting the mistress of her boyfriend, “Two,” played by Samantha Debicki. “Two” soon reveals she slept with “One”’s boyfriend in an effort to seduce “One.” Suspending my disbelief, I nonetheless hoped to see heat and connection develop between the two women. However, flat dialogue for both, and chaotic blocking for Morelli, who veered around the stage aimlessly, made for a lackluster, rather than lustful, encounter.
The highlight of the series came just in time, mid-way through with The Happy F&*#@!g Blind Guy by Bruce Graham, tautly directed by Russell Treyz. As the title would imply, our hero, the beguiling Tim (David Rosar Stearns) is a blind check-out clerk whose stellar attitude annoys his manager Larry (the acidic Nicolas Viselli) and several unseen colleagues, but charms Tim’s customers. Graham has written a positive and perceptive comedy about outlook, giving his actors equally substantial ground on which to stand. I was so convinced that Rosar Stearns was blind, that when the piece finished and he ditched his character’s white cane to move some scenery, I gasped.
John Guare’s Between is aptly titled, as I found myself a bit betwixt and between for the first half of the piece, struggling to understand who these two characters were to each other. Director Ike Schambelan places two carefully-modulated women across the table from each other, but not much else is given through this production’s script, scenic or sound design. As “A,” Pamela Sabaugh once again plays a self-conscious woman seeking reassurances from her companion, “B,” played by Melanie Boland. With her crown of softly-coiffed hair and upper-class accent, Boland seems at ease with Guare’s sensibility. A gifted storyteller, Boland steers the story down a dark staircase into her character’s past, giving the audience and the two characters a clear conflict and some mythological clues as to who they may in fact be to one another.
Last in the line up is Underground by David Henry Hwang, the most on-the-nose examination of how having a disability can be frustrating. A couple, played coherently by Nicholas Viselli and Ann Marie Morelli, who is in a wheelchair, struggle to find a working elevator in Times Square. Along the way, they encounter a rag-tag, Wizard of Oz-like band of searchers (Lawrence Merritt, Mary Theresa Archbold, and Jamie Petrone). The piece succeeds in showing Viselli and Morelli’s characters as sane people in the mad, mad world of the MTA’s morass, but pat jokes, dancing and singing of “We’re Off to See the Wizard” made it feel more like a campy skit than a thoughtful examination of how a person in a wheelchair navigates the world of walkers.
In the course of this ambitious evening of new works, Theater Breaking Through Barriers shatters stereotypes through strong production design, several thought-provoking pieces, and a game ensemble of actors and directors. Not every short play in this series resonated with me, but the through line of plays about power struggles did keep me engaged and questioning what I saw onstage throughout, which says a great deal about both TBTB’s selection of works and the obvious talents of all involved.