Leave the Balcony Open
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
February 6, 2012
On the unnamed college campus that forms the setting for Maya Macdonald’s Leave the Balcony Open, they’ve stopped counting the deaths. Over the course of a year, the student body has faced unimaginable losses—from car crashes, from suicide, from a fire, from a freak tragic accident at a campus building—and, collectively and individually, they’re at their breaking point. Gen hasn’t spoken a word in over a year. May is blocking out her grief with alcohol, sex, and three a.m. pilgrimages to the dorm room formerly occupied by her boyfriend, one of the dead students; her best friend June has taken to wearing a fake pregnancy pad (a prop from Measure for Measure) everywhere for comfort. Cathy can’t stop telling everyone she almost died, and Jon has stopped taking Xanax in a vain attempt to feel something.
As a Greek-style chorus offers ceremonial libations to mark the twenty-first birthdays of those who didn’t live to reach them, the senior class ramps up into the endless string of parties that precede graduation—and five of them (not to mention one equally damaged prospective student and one theater professor) have no idea how they’re meant to go on with the rest of their lives. Or, even, who they’re meant to be for the rest of their lives: one of the piece’s more whimsical (and more poignant) conceits is that Silent Gen’s dorm room operates as a kind of costume shop-cum-therapy booth, where for $5 (or the equivalent in objects she deems intriguing), fellow students can request to be made into someone new. Some of these requests are for literal costumes—a beached whale or a “non-Disney mermaid” for a “Sink-or-Swim” themed party—and some, inevitably, slip into the more metaphysical. Either way, it’s an elegant visual metaphor (given delightful physical realization by costume designer Sydney Gallas) for these characters’ complete sense of drift. It’s a story of trying to figure out how to grow up in a world that seems not just unwelcoming but openly hostile.
The piece’s strength—both in Macdonald’s writing and in the strong performances—is the way it captures the sheer rawness and vulnerability of these characters, often through little details and moments, especially in May and June’s relationship: May and June comparing lists of things they might possibly be able to make a living at, with “knitting mittens” being the best thing they can come with. May dressing up a new guy in the orange sweatshirt that belonged to her lost love. Matt’s (aka “Prospie”) stubbornly repeated explanation that he’s been “exonerated” from his parents.
Although the whole cast is doing solid, nuanced work, I found Betsy Hogg (May) and Mary Rasmussen (Silent Gen) especially strong. Hogg layers a paper-thin but stubborn aura of indifference over May’s cavernous grief, and then flatly refuses to let anyone punch through it; it takes a long time for us to really take the measure of how damaged she is. And Rasmussen, even in silence for ninety-nine percent of the piece, has such a strong presence and gravitas that Gen becomes the play’s anchor.
When the characters start to open up, when those details start to add up to a picture of how death has touched each of them individually, it’s heart-breaking. At the same time, though, I felt some of the climactic, explicitly emotionally revelatory scenes were less effective than the subtler, more observational moments. To me, the writing felt stronger when more oblique and less explicit; Macdonald has a nice ear for the vagaries and oddities of conversation, but can get a little heavy-handed when her characters are more explicitly unburdening themselves. Some of the revelations and catharses offered at the end of the play were a welcome ray of light emotionally, but seemed a little neat, a little too eloquent, given where we’ve seen these characters in the rest of the play.
The pacing, too, sometimes felt choppy. There’s a lot of structural fragmentation in both the script and director Jessica Bauman’s staging—short scenes full of stylistic shifts, lots of entrances and exits and sharp lighting shifts. This mimics the state of these characters’ world (also reflected in Gabriel Hainer Evansohn’s vividly kinetic set design, which looks like it’s been caught in the middle of exploding), but I felt like the energy and rhythm of the piece sometimes dissipated into the gaps between the scenes.
Even with its flaws, though, Leave the Balcony Open hits a nerve. Its characters’ sorrows and fears feel very real, and very moving; the piece can be bleak and yet I was glad Macdonald was still able to find notes of hope.