What('s) Happen(s)(ed)(ing) in the Elevator...
nytheatre.com review by Jack Hanley
June 1, 2009
So what happened, or is happening in the elevator? Well, after applying some of my personal philosophies as well as brushing up on Hegelian theories of freedom and self-determination, I came up with a simple, one word answer. And, no, I won't reveal it. Partly because I could be entirely wrong but mostly because the play warrants discourse, thoughtful reckoning, and ultimately personal interpretations. You have to think for yourself—it's the great gift of any good play.
The story is mostly populated by ordinary city dwellers, many of whom are tolerating careers that are not the stuff of their dreams, and coping with identities barely self-determined. Ironically and cleverly, playwrights P. Case Aiken, Adam Samtur, and Matthew Kagen only allow us to identify certain characters in a limited way. More precisely we know them only by their job and/or by their posturing for associates and acquaintances. Some have pipe dreams, such as the guy who busses tables and the waitress, while another seems completely incognizant of how his porn career has settled into the core of his being. One, who calls himself Tayshawn, is destroyed by his attempt to mimic a persona, and another succeeds—sort of. She's a ditzy porn star who aspires to be a writer. But is it a success to be defined by a more respectable career? Is it ever a success to be defined rather than self-determined?
At times the playwrights seem to balk at the idea of self-determination, or Hegel's concept of the free or "infinite mind." They playfully contrast such a notion with more contemporary thoughts on the construct of identity, probably best defined by Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. According to him we build our identities from "kinds of person available in one's society." But, for two significant characters in the piece, Hegel's ideas are more at the forefront, if only to portray a utopian ideal of free will.
One character, Jamz, never reveals his career; he's charming, street smart, and he's black. The playwrights seem to be testing the temptation to assume he's unemployed. It certainly exemplifies Appiah's idea of limited identities, but it might have been less obviously manipulative if a white character had also not revealed employment. Jamz is eventually, in one moment, revealed to be entirely and completely willful in the determination of his life, and this determination is not in the least bit related to a job.
The play opens with the other Hegelian type character: a desperate looking man who puts a gun to his head and shoots himself. We soon learn he didn't succeed in taking his life, but he did succeed (by brain injury) in taking away all knowledge and preconceptions of his identity and the human world. He's become a purely naïve being, and reasons he's an alien from Mars. He wanders among the other characters, observing them, and at times trying to understand them simply by the way they speak or more simply by their name. By the end he has to decide whether to remain in that "finite" state of mind or embark on the "internal dialectic" that will return his human awareness. The playwrights skillfully and intriguingly allow him both, creating something of a protean being.
The scenes of the play are structured in a non-chronological fashion, and great credit and applause must be given to director Tom Berger for allowing the structure to give a lively texture to the production, while not allowing it to hinder the play with confusion. His direction of the cast is inspired with an apparently clear vision of the work.
More than a delight was witnessing the actors take on the material with such commitment and passion. They are one of the most coherent and memorable ensembles I've been lucky enough to see. They're all standouts, with a few who stood out a little more: Miles Warner playing the deeply conflicted Tayshawn, David J. Cork playing Jamz, Julia Wiedemann playing the hardened restaurant manager, and Heather Lee Harper playing the female porn star give striking performances invoking our sympathy, distaste and everything in between.
So what about that elevator? In my watching of the play it is...Wait. I forgot. I won't say. There's no doubt these fine playwrights intend everyone to have their own personal say. They have devised a thought-provoking work that deserves attention, and it will no doubt leave you wondering if you should ever again ask the question, "What do you do?"