by Teddy Nicholas · August 25, 2014
Derek Spaldo’s Playground (playing thru August 30th) is a smartly crafted exploration of volatile relationships set against the backdrop of a Brooklyn bodega. Chris (WooJae Chung) and Ezekiel (Aron Canter), co-workers at the bodega, talk in clipped brospeak about women, or rather, Chris’ lack of a girlfriend. Ezekiel is a little older (he’s twenty-two), and so compares notes about masturbation techniques, picking up women, and their unseen and somewhat mysterious boss. Meanwhile, Kayley (Sarah Willis), a high school girl that shares a class with Chris, works with her mentally unstable dad (Michel Morin) at his automobile repair shop, though she’d rather work at her best friend’s mom’s apparel store. When Kayley’s attempts to attend a high school dance are thwarted, she seeks shelter in the bodega to await her father, and the tense relationships between all characters snowballs into an explosion of violence.
The direction (also by Spaldo) is superb. The stage is sparse except for a few chairs, a white backwall, and a grey folding table with very few props. The stark staging allows Spaldo to utilize the space between characters, establishing intimacy with a simple gesture such as a turn of the head, or the impending threat of violence with characters moving just a few steps. The lights by Rachel Chatham are simple but effective, illuminating every crevice of the stage throughout this tight 60-minute drama, and allowing the audience to focus on the subtle performances by this talented quartet.
WooJae Chung as Chris exudes complex menace covered with grotesque machismo that speaks volumes about masculinity. During one hilarious scene, Ezekiel calls out Chris on his homophobia, confusingly comparing it to racism. Chris defends himself by saying that gay people aren’t a race, but he, a Korean-American, is. Aron Canter as Ezekiel is outright charming, brightly engaging with the audience while staying in character. Michel Morin as Kayley’s dad rounds out the male characters, showcasing an older, working class generation where hard work is valued, but the stress of such work takes its toll on the mind and the body. Together, these three male characters paint an honest, messy, sadly funny portrait of contemporary masculinity today. Sarah Willis as Kayley telegraphs vulnerability with poise. The only female in the ensemble, Willis holds her own, giving Kayley a playful intelligence that suggests this young woman will transcend above the male dominated world she inhabits.
Spaldo takes a page from the theater of Richard Maxwell aesthetically, and it certainly works. The poetry of the working class speech is splayed out before us in minute detail. The performers focus their gaze sharply at the audience, reflecting back our energy towards us, but rather than making this an uncomfortable experience, it pulls us in, drawing us deeper into the layers of performance. When the final line is delivered followed by its sharp blackout, it sent chills down my spine.