nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
July 15, 2009
NeverCracked, a doubleheader produced by The Intentional Theatre Group and Carissa Baker, presents two wildly incongruous yet individually successful short works as part of this year's Midtown International Theatre Festival. Though Cracked and (especially) Never Swim Alone are engaging and impressive in their dexterity and swing-for-the-fences performances, the pairing makes for a vertigo-inducing oddity. The result is much like welding the front end of a funeral transport to the backside of a clown car: No matter how well it may handle—and it does—the collected effort is a head-scratcher.
Commissioned from Washington, D.C. playwright Gwydion Suilebhan by The Intentional Theatre Group, Cracked is a tonally subversive solo piece about one woman's obsession with that most basic of baking ingredients: the egg. Introduced as the host of a cooking show, the nameless protagonist of Cracked revels in encyclopedic and sensorial passage after passage, celebrating the faint scent of an eggshell, the oft unnoticed magic of opacity, and the rituals of preparing an egg for the pan. The final moments may suggest a metaphoric public slaying or suicide: though enigmatic and obfuscated, these final moments are haunting and powerful in their invocation of death.
Grace Kiley gives an emotionally fragile performance that is the theatrical equivalent of my grandmother's eggnog: sweet for lack of bite, the concoction ends with an unexpected sucker-punch. Restrained almost to the point of timidity, Kiley's performance burns slowly, stripping away protective layers to reveal rawness and vulnerability. Dressed in dour black, at times Kiley's somber take on the material seems at odds with Suilebhan's text, whose matter-of-fact banality and absurdism suggests a kind of impassioned, Christopher Durang-esque madness, but the overall impact is beguiling.
If Cracked bears echoes of Durang, Daniel MacIvor's Never Swim Alone could have antecedents in John Guare and the neo-surreal theatre of late '70s / early '80s New York. Two prototypical white collar alpha males, Frank and Bill, compete with one another in more than a dozen bouts: of wit, of fashion, of deftness in guile and malice. The bouts take the form of short scenes, monologues, and soliloquies, occasionally performed in startling synchronization, occasionally competing with one another in a cacophony of noise and ego. Frank and Bill's dick-swinging contest is refereed by a statuesque woman who also appears as a character in the past whose ominous fate forever links the two men. There is a whiz-bang gallows humor to Never Swim Alone, quite unlike its dirge of a counterpart.
Nick Lewis and Daniel Dugan are impressive as Frank and Bill, respectively. Their articulate charm serves to disguise cores of ugliness and spite. These are the kinds of characters Bret Easton Ellis once specialized in, and Lewis and Dugan inhabit them brilliantly. In her dual role, Candice Holdorf brings grace and pathos to the proceedings, and does so with demonstrably less material to work with than her game costars.
Director Emerie Snyder has crafted two appealing works that cling to honesty and humanity where lesser directors may have veered into arbitrary theatricality or clutter. To be sure, NeverCracked works as well as it does because Snyder has assembled a crack team of actors, designers, and collaborators (with particularly impressive contributions by sound designer Asa Wember and fight choreographer Ryan Bartfuff) but the evening benefits from the crisp and efficient style directly attributable to Snyder's direction. Though Never Swim Alone and Cracked never quite feel like two halves of one show, they are two fine pieces that, viewed as efforts in a night-long repertory season, make for satisfying theatre.