by Loren Noveck · August 18, 2015
Lauren Hennessy, Lipica Shah, Scott Thomas, and Lauren LaRocca | Jesse Kane-Hartnett
Jacob Marx Rice’s Coping (directed by Anna Strasser, who directed Rice’s wonderful Chemistry in last year’s FringeNYC) starts with four somber phone messages--a group notifying one another of Connor’s suicide. Four people must deal with the aftermath--the funeral, and the physical and emotional tasks of packing up a life and figuring out how to move on. Sarah, his girlfriend, is catapulted into a major OCD episode. Jessica, his sister, is a ball of rage, mostly directed at Sarah but with extra withering sarcasm for the funeral director, Janie, whose earnestness pushes Jessica’s buttons. (Jessica and Sarah have never gotten along, but Sarah owned the gun that Connor used, and Jessica blames her.) Lucas, his roommate, has retreated into a stoned haze of marijuana and Taylor Swift. And Taylor, Jessica’s girlfriend, is thrown into the middle, trying to help everyone, and succeeding less than half the time.
Among Sarah’s obsessions is a textbook of Connor’s full of marginal notes--not just class material, but observations, reminders, stray thoughts. She’s convinced it hides a message, a suicide note or an explanation. She reads the marginalia over and over, just as she relives, reanalyzes, and replays every moment of this terrible week, trying to get it right. That obsessive replaying soon takes a literal theatrical form--she frequently “holds” the action with a call to the stage manager (metaphorical analyst and literal technician), then jumps back to replay a sequence to a better ending.
This works beautifully as a tool to give the audience a visceral glimpse inside what OCD feels like. But it also serves to privilege Sarah’s experience, making her the piece’s center, to the detriment of the other, equally interesting characters. Sarah acknowledges that her world had shrunk to only Connor--she has no other close connections. So her sense of being adrift is painfully real, but almost entirely inward; she’s stuck in every moment, and it’s hard to make that compelling, though Lauren LaRocca captures all its shades.
Jessica and Taylor intrigued me. Jessica is a software developer, who’s supported her brother through medical school after their parents died when they were teenagers. She’s hard as nails outside--but she has her own mental health demons, vulnerabilities that only Taylor knows. Taylor, a bartender with a gift for mixing blunt with gentle, isn’t treated very well by Jessica--they’ll blow up several times in the course of the play--but their love is genuine (and touchingly played, especially by Lauren Hennessy, as Taylor), something Sarah finds difficult to believe.
Lucas sometimes seems to be purely comic relief (successfully--Scott Thomas is hilarious), but he’s dealing with difficult things too--he found Connor, and his bonding moment with Jessica is one of the few places where characters actually share their emotional turmoil.
So it’s a little frustrating that the piece as a whole is so thoroughly steered by Sarah’s journey. Still, Rice has a gift for capturing both the lived-in experience of mental illness and the frustrations of those it touches, without sentimentality and with considerable humor.