nytheatre.com review by Joe Kurtz
July 18, 2009
West Lethargy, written and directed by Stephen Kaliski, is a slightly absurdist play that tries to be two things. The first is a symbolic play where each character ultimately represents a theme or state of being. The second is a character-driven piece about individuals. Because of this dichotomy and the fact that it has absurdist qualities but never really delves into the absurd, neither objective is fully met.
Ellie and Turner are a couple who seem to be from times gone by. Their costumes put one in mind of either the late 1800s or perhaps rogue Amish. They were journeying west toward California, but have stopped in a symbolically "middle" section of the United States for an extended period for "rest." Ellie desires to stay, Turner wishes to continue their journey. Nugget and Ringle are another couple who have recently arrived in the symbolically "middle" section of the United States, and are in search of Nugget's brother. They dress and speak as people from somewhere closer to present-day. A postman also makes an appearance at the very end of the play, serving mostly to deliver an important letter. He seems to have no other real purpose. Nugget and Ringle bring with them a scale model of the Empire State Building which is central to a game they play where people take turns making up stories about fictional people on each level of the building. Through the stories that are told regarding these fictional characters, we get a glimpse into the psyches and relationships of each of the four central characters.
The main issue I had with this play is that it was too short. At 75 minutes, we are just really getting to know these characters, their stories and objectives when the play abruptly ends. This would be fine if it were simply a symbolic play, but it isn't. The play doesn't paint the characters distinctly specific enough to be deemed allegorical. I felt, at the end, as if I had watched most of a season of a television show only to be denied the final episodes.
Mikaela Feely-Lehmann gives a sensitive, nuanced performance as Nugget, and Joie Bauer is delightfully childlike and endearing as Ringle. I didn't, however, ever quite believe them as a couple. After a rocky first scene, I eventually warmed to Suzanne Lenz as Ellie, but Graham Halstead as Turner never really hit the mark, perhaps due to his character being the least specific in terms of the writing.
The strongest sections of the play are the stories the different characters tell about the fictional people in the model of the Empire State Building. These do more to tell us about the characters than any of the dialogue or interactions.
In conclusion, if you enjoy plays that linger in the realm of the absurd, then this play might be worth seeing. Otherwise, you will most likely walk away not quite getting whatever it is the playwright wanted you to feel and wishing there was a second act to provide closure or a hint of the future for the characters, or wishing they were more decidedly symbolic, so you could focus on the message.