Rules of the Universe
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 20, 2007
Forty minutes doesn't sound like a long time, but if you know what you're doing and you put your mind to it, you can get a great deal accomplished. Playwright Daniel Reitz, director Daniel Talbott, and actors Spencer Aste, Joel Johnstone, and Elizabeth West know exactly what they're doing in the new play Rules of the Universe, which is being staged by Rising Phoenix Repertory in two small bathrooms at Jimmy's No. 43 in the East Village. What they deliver to audiences is jolting, moving, and exciting.
And, yes, you read that right: Rules of the Universe is performed in tiny adjoining bathrooms (one for the men, one for the lady), while a small audience sits in abbreviated rows of seats in a connecting corridor. The front row is no more than six feet from the action. The naked intimacy matters a lot; this play could absolutely be staged in a bigger or more traditional space, but the emotions that are exposed here are so raw and personal that proximity enhances the experience hugely.
In a dive bar men's john are Will and Eric. The former, seated on the closed toilet, is a 40-year-old professor/author who, we will discover, is a pretty prominent, well-off guy, what with receiving that MacArthur "genius" grant and everything. The latter, 21, standing by the urinal, is Will's cocky, handsome student. Reitz wastes no time establishing that these men are rendezvousing in the bathroom for the reason you suspect; here are the first three lines of the play:
Will: You're not wearing underwear.
Eric: How 'bout that.
Will: Is that for my benefit?
The scene that plays out between these two men is about sex and desire and, especially, power. It happens at the sad, strange place where an act of love flirts with turning into a business transaction, or vice versa. Talbott's staging and the potent, nuanced performances of Aste (Will) and Johnstone (Eric) never give too much away, and the balance between these two men and between their feelings of loneliness and alienation shifts tantalizingly back and forth.
Next door, in a ladies' room in a restaurant across town, a woman sits alone in the weird artificial light in a stall, trying to figure out what she will do next. Her ex, with whom she had a relationship for many years, has just walked into the dining room with his girlfriend, causing her to flee midway through her meal: "Half glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc getting warm, New York Times' recommended portabello risotto getting cold." This half of the play is a monologue, splendidly performed by West, echoing and commenting on the ideas and themes that have already been laid on the table. Reitz ties the two sections together with a neat twist that I didn't see coming.
These glimpses we get into three human souls at their most desperate are searing and incisive: truth is revealed in bold, concentrated strokes here. Reitz's writing is terrific; this is a play that you want to see and hear again a day later (at least that's how I felt), both to savor its gems and to contemplate its sudden profundities. Rules of the Universe deserves a long life beyond these two rest rooms at Jimmy's, but I'm not sure that the breathtaking immediacy of experiencing this play in this singular setting will ever be matched; kudos to Rising Phoenix for showing us what site-specific theatre can be—in less than an hour's time.