nytheatre.com review by Daniel Vidor
February 10, 2011
The topic of Rachael Holder’s play Dead Fish is a familiar one. It’s about that mysterious thing called the quarter-life crisis. It’s a crisis involving self-identity, money, jobs, and the opposite sex. What separates Holder’s play and in the end makes it different from all of the other plays, movies, and TV shows that deal with the same subject matter is the seriousness with which she tackles these issues. There is an unmitigated lived-in quality her play has which results in an urgency that each character feels in trying solve their problems. It’s this kind of urgency that makes Holder’s play compelling. Every character’s voice sounds authentic and we as audience believe that their individual problems are real and important.
The play starts off with Zoe desperately trying to convince her younger seemingly slacker brother to get out of his apartment and go on a date with her friend Karen from work. Harris complies, only to go back on his word once his sister leaves his apartment. We then learn that Harris’s 18-year-old cousin, Halie, is staying with him without the knowledge of her parents or Zoe. It seems as though Harris has canceled his date in order to hang out with her. Their scene together is spliced with a scene between Zoe and her boyfriend, Jack, as they wait for the train together. It is to the entire production crew's credit that each set piece is immediately recognizable. Anyone who has waited for a train in New York or anyone who has lived in a Bushwick loft will be struck by how uncannily both sets evoke the essence of their locations.
Bombshells are revealed in both of these scenes. Jack tells Zoe that he got a promotion to be the manager of the restaurant where he works, Zoe reveals that she is pregnant and wants to marry Jack, and Harris confesses his crush for Halie. These three revelations are what set the wheels in motion for all of the conflict and confusion that is to take place during the course of the play. Zoe wants to embrace the responsibilities that come with adulthood, Jack wants to reject anything that might tie him down so that he can focus on being a writer, and Harris just simply wants Halie. Halie wants to be an actress. However, when it comes to relationships, she really doesn’t know what she wants. The more we learn about these characters we come to realize that they too don’t know what they really want either. They all seem to have an idea of what happiness is but are unsure as to how to get there. This sense of “I don’t know how to be happy” scares the hell out of them.
I was struck by how all of the actors fully internalized this fear and yet were still able to be active in what they were doing on stage. These characters have many moments where they talk for quite some time about how they feel. In a lesser production of this show, these moments could halt the dramatic momentum of the play by becoming self-indulgent. However, this cast uses those moments to passionately engage one another. It’s as though they desperately need the other person to tell them right away how they can solve their problems.
Things reach a boiling point right before the end of the first act, at a party that Zoe and Jack throw to celebrate their engagement. It’s one of those parties that ought to be joyous but ends in semi-catastrophe. Each character’s faith in one another is shaken to the core when certain information is brought to light. Nobody’s relationship will ever be the same again.
The highlight of the show in my opinion happens in this scene as well. Zoe’s friend from work, Karen, volunteers herself to read a poem she wrote aloud. In this poem Karen reveals how unhappy she is with her life. At first her poem comes across as comic in its bluntness and because of Karen’s lack of literary savvy. However in an instant the audience is brought into deep sympathy for the seriousness of Karen’s plight. It is a tricky balancing act dealing with the dark humor and pathos that exist in this monologue. Instead of shying away from this tonal mixture, the director, Tarik Davis, and the actress, Halima Henderson fully commit to it. The end result of which is a moment that is both hilarious and heartbreaking.
The final scene of the play resembles the second scene, with Jack and Zoe waiting for the train and Harris hanging out with Halie in his apartment. This time around, though, circumstances have changed drastically. It is ambiguous as to whether or not any of them are any closer to knowing what they want out of life. I admired this ambiguity. Perhaps there could be another play about these characters ten years from now. I cared enough about them to wonder where they were going and who they would become.