nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 18, 2010
The whole point of the New York International Fringe Festival, as far as I am concerned, is to hear new voices, to tune in to new perspectives, to go on journeys you never expected to go on. West Lethargy, written and directed by Stephen Kaliski and produced by Page 121 Productions, exemplifies all of this: it's a play that's full of surprises and defies simple categorization; it's lyrical and it's odd, and it challenges you to appreciate its own strange rhythms as it meanders through an exploration of (among other things) the idea of home, and how it's defined by the notions of staying and leaving.
A simple summarization of the situations and characters of West Lethargy will not do the play justice, but it does give me a place to start discussing it, so here goes. Ellie and Turner are a married couple, dressed in old-fashioned clothes and living in an apparently spartan cottage in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of America; they have stopped here, possibly temporarily, on their way West to California. One day, Turner goes out to find some food and instead finds Nugget and Ringle, another married couple, who have just moved in nearby. Nugget is installing pipes for a shower (which she'll eventually do for Turner and Ellie's home, too). Ringle gives Turner an enormous replica of the Empire State Building, about four feet high. (It's a spare; they have their own at their home. "We don't make them," Nugget explains. "We just fill them with all the shit that never came true.")
Stuff happens, as it will; but the driving force of West Lethargy isn't its plot but rather its restless mood. Turner wants to get back on the road to California. Ellie wants to grow old in her cabin. Nugget wants to find her brother, who has disappeared, apparently also on his way to California. Ringle wants to comfort himself by telling the stories of each of the stories in the Empire State Building.
West Lethargy's characters sometimes seem like they should be archetypal, but they're not; they're as individual as Americans are supposed to be, and they each have their own strong desires to invent themselves and their own mythologies. Sometimes this allows for connection among them and sometimes it makes for an ineffable kind of aloneness.
There's a fifth character, by the way, a postman who happens by during a dinner party that Turner and Ellie are throwing for Nugget and Ringle. He arrives in the midst of a game that all four are playing that involves the Empire State Building replica. He has some mail to deliver to each couple and thus is the catalyst for the play's completely foreseeable yet nonetheless unexpected conclusion.
Kaliski's writing and staging grafts the absurd onto the familiar and the contemporary onto the historical; it seems to be about shifting our perspective not so much to teach us something new but to let us appreciate something old in a new and surprising way.
It's performed by a cast of five: Joie Bauer and Mikaela Feely-Lehmann are Ringle and Nugget, Graham Halstead and Suzanne Lenz are Turner and Ellie; and Jeffrey Feola (who is also the play's producer) is the Postman. All fit neatly in the world evoked by Kaliski. Halstead and Bauer make particularly strong impressions, perhaps never more so than in the brief but hilarious scene in which Turner teaches Ringle one very effective way to kill a chicken.
I don't think West Lethargy is going to be loved by everyone who sees it, but I am happy it's found a home in FringeNYC this year, to introduce us to Page 121's interesting band of artists. I look forward to what they come up with next.