nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
June 19, 2006
Plays in development are both the curse and the glory of contemporary theater. The thriving industry-within-the-industry created around the development process sometimes does mean that works not ready for an audience are produced. However, on occasion there can be a production where even though the play is not quite finished, it is still a fully worthwhile, rich evening for the audience. Quail by Rachel Hoeffel, the last of Clubbed Thumb's current festival offerings at the Ohio Theater, is that kind of experience. This production is so strong (especially the acting), that it deserves to be seen.
Quail follows Arlene, a legal secretary, as she floats through her life at a small law firm in New York's financial district. The firm is occupied by two classic New York lawyers who possess varying degrees of curmudgeonry. They are performed by the wonderful Gerry Bamman as Dean, specific in so many moments that he contributes a fullness that may not be inherent in the piece, and the intent Everett Quinton as Alan, whose precise reactions to characters onstage and off populates the play with its unseen characters.
Amidst them is Arlene. She gets coffee, tapes her thoughts onto a mini-recorder, has sex in the closet, but—most important to her—she does not do her filing. By Arlene's own admission (in one of the somewhat disjointed 9/11 references), she would rather die making a sandwich than at the copier machine.
This office routine is broken up by some strangely brilliant, macabre moments of ill health experienced by her boss Dean and occasional visits from the son of Dean's ex-partner who is going through a divorce or the East Village night club owner who is a friend of the Alan's dead lover. All of this weirdly interesting activity seems to swirl around an oddly distant Arlene.
Quail contains an abundance of small, profound thoughts and beautifully realized details (all well-physicalized in the smartly-designed set by David Evans Morris). Hoeffel has set up a world in which two planes co-exist. Ordinary objects take on unexpected uses. Unsettling occurrences manage to seem routine until the writer skillfully flips them around in a way that enables the audience to appreciate a moment more deeply. In many instances, the writing sets something up and then subverts expectations, giving the audience an experience that might have been kept distanced otherwise. For example, for much of the piece, a "sex in a supply closet" scenario is set up as being somehow mundane. Then suddenly the characters involved have to deal with who they are in each others' lives. This sudden late call for meaning creates an unexpected sense of loss when that relationship dissolves.
But the writing also offers many unfinished or unclear moments, such as Arlene's affliction of "psychic" despair. She experiences waves of it that are strong enough to send her hiding in the women's bathroom yet are not strong enough to ever be explained or lead anywhere. It's a difficult role and Elizabeth Meriwether is quite affecting as the title character, Arlene Quail, but the character remains aggravatingly remote. Arlene never quite engages nor do the events within the play seem to have affected her. This sense of aloofness often overwhelms the many extraordinary events of the play.
Yet the play as it exists is approaching something and it would be wonderful to see that something to be specified. There is certainly humor and inventiveness and caring within this production. Per their mission statement, the play is as funny and strange as Clubbed Thumb would like, but the provocative element stills needs to be clarified.