by Matthew Freeman · August 15, 2014
While the phrase “the elephant in the room” is often meant to describe a key but unspoken subject, The Elephant in the Room, a new play by Anna Fox premiering at the NY International Fringe Festival, is hardly a Pinter play. The “elephant” here is sexual assault, and the play keeps the subject front and center for all of its running time. It is, in fact, the first play I’ve seen whose program includes a “trigger warning” which reads: “This play contains depictions of sexual violence.”
In Fox’s play almost any moment of conversation is a tripwire that can send its three main characters Felicia (Leila Teitelman), Quinn (Emily Altschul) or the mostly silent Talia (Samantha Walsh) into a memory of sexual aggression, humiliation or rape. There’s little story but lots to tell as these three friends elbow each other emotionally and fall into whirlwind after whirlwind of memory or fantasy. Obviously, the subject at hand is a sensitive and personal one to many people. A play’s subject is not the play itself, though, and The Elephant In The Room’s structure and content never quite match the ambitions clearly present.
The characters themselves, while I’m sure relatable to some, are largely unpleasant to spend time with. They’re casually racist (one character quickly runs through her sexual preferences in men by race without blinking), jobless, mopey, impulsive and quick to judge. While Fox seems to imply this behavior can be broadly attributed to PTSD or trauma, much of it seemed more like the restless activity of most fresh-out-of-college Brooklynites– sleeping around, drinking too much, taking drugs and ordering takeout. Because of this, even Fox seems to get exasperated by her characters by the end of the play.
I’m leaving something out. Something unspoken. Oh yes, the forth actor that appears in the play, The Elephant himself. Nate Houran plays The Elephant, a sort of free floating embodiment of anxiety, and also Peter, a 30 year old accountant who comes over to use the internet. Houran switches between appearing to be a well-meaning young Ed Begley Jr. and a poetic device, deftly. No small feat.
In fact, all of the performers handle the material extremely well, especially given the wild changes in tone. Walsh, in particular, is effective as the quiet Talia, perhaps standing out because her character remains generally grounded. Teitelman’s role keeps her in one place for much of the play – angry and dismissive – and so when she does get a light moment (“I’m drinking black tea,” she explains, in a metatheatrical moment about the contents of her whiskey bottle), she’s charming. Altshcul does most of the heavy lifting here, and she winningly succeeds at parsing through Quinn’s drugged and impulsive actions.
Fox’s writing has moments where it rises above the murk of her subject and impresses. There’s a rendition of "Hush Little Baby" that’s creepy and fun; and some excursions into monologue that are stuffed with wonderful images and surprising turns of phrase.
Director Molly Clifford makes a strong choice by ignoring the wide playing space at the Kraine Theater and keeps the characters crowded atop one another and stepping over each other, centered on a single couch. This generally works, forcing creativity in the staging and discomfort in the characters. (It also replicates just what it’s like to share with three roommates in Brooklyn.)
In the end, perhaps because I was never persuaded that these women’s behavior could be so uniformly attributed to one kind of experience, The Elephant In The Room never quite coalesced for me. It does, though, feature some excellent work by up-and-coming talents. Hopefully, they’ll be openly discussed in other roles and contexts, in the years ahead.