I Will Come Like a Thief
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 14, 2006
This is the third of Trish Harnetiaux's plays that I've seen at 78th Street Theatre Lab; it's also the third that, despite its really ingenious and exciting premise, turns out to be a terrible letdown in the execution. What is it about this playwright's collaborations with director Jude Domski that keeps resulting in near-misses? It's frustrating, and also disappointing, because I Will Come Like a Thief—like its predecessors Inside a Bigger Box and Straight On Til Morning—is just loaded with potential. This should have been a terrific play.
Drawing on New Yorkers' 9/11-Blackout of '03 collective consciousness, and incorporating a healthy dollop of generalized Bush Administration paranoia, I Will Come Like a Thief is about an apocalyptic-type day when the city is under attack and everybody has to evacuate. (It's never stated which city, but it certainly feels like the Big Apple.) For eight diverse characters—a tourist, a postman, an immigrant chef, a woman with a cat, a teenage girl, a retired World War II veteran, a dissolute young man, and the Mayor of this burg—the questions that have to be answered very quickly are: what do I do when my world ends? where do I go? what do I take with me? who do I take with me? what happens to me now?
It's particularly resonant stuff, although such fundamental and essential queries, whose answers lie at the very heart of who we are, would be worth exploring at any historical moment. The play's initial examination is riveting. The chef wants to find his young son; the dissolute fellow (referred to in the program, somewhat misleadingly, as "the rake") wants to throw a party. The Mayor searches the written works of wise men who ruled before him for an example; the lonely woman searches for her cat. The postman shifts into reverse-delivery mode, collecting (rather than dropping off) every package he can find, making his bundle of possessions ever larger as he prepares to leave town. The teenager, studying Da Vinci for a science project, puts the finishing touches on her model flying machine. The tourist, perhaps most naturally of all, just wants to get home.
Near the conclusion of the play, the characters pause to ponder what they haven't yet done as some kind of end begins to feel more and more inevitable:
MAYOR: I should have learned to play an instrument
THE TOURIST: I wish I'd sung at the Grand Ole Opry
MAYOR: The saxophone
THE RAKE: The guitar
THE POSTMAN: The bass
THE RAKE: Yeah, the bass guitar
Beautiful! But the scene goes on for six pages, its power diminishing with each moment that its fleeting melancholy is prolonged. Harnetiaux, in possession of grand ideas as a playwright, consistently seems unable to know quite how to use them, and I Will Come Like a Thief, like its predecessors in her oeuvre, unravels as a result.
The immigrant gets arrested and jailed at the height of the evacuation; isn't this a bit gratuitous, not to mention illogical (surely the police would be shooting "suspicious" people at this point, not taking time to put them in prison)? The emergency warning system issues a repeated announcement: "The Office of Emergency Management is working closely with the city to ensure that this evacuation is properly evacuated." Why has Harnetiaux written them a script that doesn't make any sense?
The teenager and the war veteran know each other and have a long-standing relationship, but no other pairs of people have any dealings with one another except for random ones; why? The "rake" fantasizes and/or interacts with the woman of his dreams repeatedly, who is portrayed by the actress who plays the woman with the cat. But for every other character, interactions are always with unseen "others"; why? The postman and the tourist met before, long ago, but apparently none of the others have similar connections; why? I wanted Harnetiaux to be more careful, more consistent, and each time she faltered in this regard, I found the piece losing momentum and myself losing track of whatever message she was trying to impart to me.
Domski's use of the small 78th Street space is problematic as well. The opening is wonderfully engaging, with each of the eight characters being introduced to us from a corner of the mostly bare set that seems to be uniquely their own—except that after about five people have entered, Domski seems to have run out of locations, and people start to emerge from areas that were defined as someone else's turf. Similarly, at the climax of the play, all of the characters start to fill the stage as they head on their own separate journeys away from the city; yet the space isn't clearly enough defined, and it's not clear whether they are in fact separate or occupying the same territory as one another.
The piece is enhanced by some fine performances, notably Henry Afro-Bradley's warm and moving turn as the wise old veteran, JJ Zuczkiewicz's earnest and likable teenager, and Michael Colby Jones's sad (but never pathetic) "rake."
But in the final analysis, I Will Come Like a Thief ranks as a disappointment, and the saddest kind for its intelligence and ingenuity. Harnetiaux knows how to serve; she's got some work to do on her follow-through.