You couldn’t do Gianina Carbinariu’s Stop the Tempo—a taut yelp of a play that imagines a series of small, shared, personal acts of rebellion against the omnipresence of the technology that connects us at every moment of every day—in a traditional theater space; it’s powered by an uncomfortable intimacy between audience and performers, which is mirrored by the uncomfortable intimacy found and forced among the characters themselves. But in the dim Lower East Side rock club Arlene’s Grocery, with the moodiness amped up by dry ice and a club beat, with handheld pin-spots providing most of the lighting, with the audience amid the action, the piece has a propulsive energy. The play’s different tonal layers don’t entirely hang together, and the plot is more of a sketch than a fully realized piece of storytelling, but both Carbinariu’s text and Matt Torney’s direction have style to burn. Too, its polyglot internationalism (the playwright is Romanian, the translator Irish, the director Belfast-born and New York-based, the actors American) adds angles, as the piece mixes super-specific evocations of modern Bucharest with more universal depictions of life among the “Millennial” generation in a precarious world economy.
The three twenty-something characters here are first thrown together by grimly humorous circumstance, in a way that evokes a Hollywood “meet cute” cliche—redeemed by the fact that they don’t ever grow to love each other or learn “valuable lessons” from their coincidental bonding. They grow to depend on each other, yes, even to need each other in a more-than-slightly dysfunctional way, but if you asked any of them if they were friends they’d probably laugh in your face. Each is alone in a Bucharest dance club when they meet: Paula, recently dumped by her girlfriend, is out trying to get drunk and blow off steam; Rolando, an aspiring DJ, is trying to keep his cool quotient high; and Maria, working three jobs and aspiring to a “normal” life, has gotten signals crossed with her date and is waiting in the wrong club.
Putting up three different fronts for three different irritated phone calls, all three pretend they’re surrounded by friends—and then on a dime that defensive posture turns into a wild night on the town that’s part orgy, part drug binge, and part desperate craving for adventure. When that first night out—that escape from a club scene making them separately miserable—ends in disaster, it would be logical for their paths to never cross again. Instead, drawn by an unholy mixture of rage, piqued curiosity, frustration, and a dollop of sexual tension, they continue to seek one another out, and soon they’re involved in a spree of behavior somewhere between prank and terrorism.
The inchoate sense of protest against society—club society, Bucharest society, world society—that fuels them feels like a scream from a disaffected generation. It’s not that these three are failures—Paula is quite successful in advertising; Maria works three jobs and saves her money for a future she can barely imagine. Rolando, true, is struggling, but it’s a struggle to imagine an adult life he wants to live rather than failure to achieve a goal. Still, there’s nothing for them in their relationships (Paula and Rolando are both smarting from recent breakups; Maria is dating her gynecologist, which even she knows is a terrible idea) and their media-saturated, permanently digitally connected environment is starting to overwhelm; they want to feel like they have an effect and nihilism feels more achievable than social change.
Carbinariu uses two different styles, one more prosaic/naturalistic—self-deprecating, self-aware monologues and the slightly awkward dialogue of virtual strangers—and the other more heightened and poetic, even philosophical, and they don’t always sit easily together. This may be partly because some of the more heightened dialogue is also the most specifically about Romania and Romanian national identity, and the references didn’t translate effectively. It may be because the shift in language comes with a shift in acting styles that flattened the individuality of the characters and performances—Olivia Horton’s deadpan rage as Paula, Sarah Silk’s nervous niceness as Maria, Reuben Barsky’s slightly affected blase attitude as Rolando.
Or it may be because there’s a little connective tissue that could be added here, drawing the two levels together and deepening our understanding of the characters and their mission. The piece’s idiosyncratic roughness is part of its charm, and I wouldn’t want to see that polished away—but a little filling in the gaps might go a long way.