The Zero Hour
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
June 27, 2010
In a tiny, quasi-legal, falling-down Queens studio apartment, serenaded constantly by the elevated 7 train shuttling past their window, Rebecca and O try to figure out how to love each other in a way that won't end up driving one of them mad—and the sad truth is, most of the time they don't succeed. Rebecca, a textbook researcher working on a seventh-grade-level history of the Holocaust loves O—loves sleeping with O—but can't even call herself gay to her therapist, let alone her mother, her co-workers, or the world at large. O, conversely, is, as she claims, "out at the Key Food...out to my hygienist at Praise the Lord Dental," and though she loves Rebecca passionately, fiercely, even a little desperately, she resents her invisibility in Rebecca's life, and Rebecca's placid willingness to make O invisible in order to keep the peace—especially with her mother.
If this were the only level on which The Zero Hour took place—the day-to-day details of a relationship skidding out of control; the little ways love gets shaped and deformed by real life—it would be a well-crafted, but fairly mundane, realistic relationship play, with a few provocative detours into philosophical questions about genocide and atrocity: keenly observed, beautifully acted by Angela Goethals and Hannah Cabell (with a small but key role played by Gardiner Comfort), full of sharp detail. But the piece is much richer and stranger than that. As much as the play is about—often heartbreakingly about—what happens when Rebecca and O are together, it's also about the ghosts that taunt them when they're alone. And it's in the passionate, uncomfortable weirdness of the ghost stories, and the counterpoint they pose to the simplicity of the main story—both in the way they complicate the narrative and the way they ruffle the realistic dramaturgy—that Madeleine George really creates something theatrically interesting.
O, unemployed, spending her days imagining home-design projects and riding the 7 train, is plagued by imaginary mothers—mostly her own mother, Rae, from whom she's fairly irrevocably estranged (for what are revealed to be very good reasons); occasionally Rebecca's mother, Lily (to whom Rebecca remains close, though through a veil of constant small untruths about her life). Rebecca, who's spending her days constructing group activities and practice quizzes about the Holocaust, has begun to find history—in the person of strangers who imperceptibly, constantly, shade into Nazis (and not in some abstract, philosophical way: literal members of the Hitler Youth, somehow transported across time and onto the 7 train)—impinging on her with ever-greater force. And perhaps even more unsettling to Rebecca, the Nazis are not so much threatening her as imploring her, wanting her to engage with and understand them.
O's interactions with the mothers invariably take place in the apartment; Rebecca's Nazis at first appear primarily on the subway (though in a beautiful piece of staging by director Adam Greenfield and set designer Mimi Lien, the playing area of the subway car is fluid, appearing behind windows and walls and ultimately overlapping with the bedroom area of the apartment). Both mothers are played by Angela Goethals, who also plays Rebecca; the Nazis (with one key exception), as well as Angela's therapist, are played by Hannah Cabell—O. So although these other scenes, on a literal level, take place outside the sometimes stifling confines of the primary romance, they also—by being played out between the same two performers, both of whom expertly layer new characters onto an emotional core grounded in the central relationship—refract and reflect on the dynamic between Rebecca and O.
And this interaction is further combined with Rebecca's attempts to come to grips with the historical material she's working on, which consumes her, bursting out in her conversations with her therapist (about how the very idea of the Nazis has come to "embody an absolute standard of evil"), in her attempts to come up with suitable homework assignments, which keep turning her inward to investigate her own struggles with identity, with belonging, with community.
Ultimately, George seems most interested in delving into power dynamics—into the inhumanity of people to each other on both a structural, societal level and an intimate, interpersonal one. How do we understand, on the most basic level, evil: grapple with it, face it in our day-to-day lives? How do we forgive one another for the unforgivable—and do we know when we ourselves are engaging in unforgivable acts? The Zero Hour poses these questions and, though it doesn't answer them—and how could it, really?—it also doesn't shy away from complicated and uncomfortable answers.