Theater in the Dark, With Lights
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 28, 2011
With Theater in the Dark with Lights, playwright Ashlin Halfnight, director Kristjan Thor, and a couple of dozen actors collaborate to give audiences honest and compelling drama at its most essential. The emphasis here is on telling pertinent stories and creating interesting, fully-dimensional characters that we can relate to. I saw two of the three plays offered in this ambitious repertory, one after the other last Friday night, and both are entirely successful.
Laws of Motion is a splendid new drama that ranks with the very best of Halfnight's work (which is to say, also, with the very best American plays of this new century). It introduces us to four sets of characters who are coping with the tribulations of life in New York in the current Recession. The first folks we encounter are Anna and Christopher, who meet cute in a subway train that is stopped between stations because of "police activity" up above. They seem to connect, but Anna never gives out her number on the subway; yet, she shows up at the Kinkos where Christopher works soon after, and it looks like their relationship might go somewhere. Christopher first has to deal with the perpetually disgruntled Gordon, a very dissatisfied customer; and what Gordon and then Anna discover about Christopher could jeopardize how the budding romance turns out.
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, we are introduced to Carlos and Lonnie, a divorced couple whose daughter Sammy is very resentful about the split-up and her dad's new Russian girlfriend. Back in Manhattan, we find Jolene, a successful businesswoman whose world has gone akimbo after some kind of accident; and Markus and Bella, an upwardly mobile couple who are also working through the aftermath of an accident. Markus is struggling to keep his job in the downsizing financial industry, and both he and Bella are dealing with stresses that are threatening to tear apart their marriage.
Halfnight has written all of these characters with intelligence and care; we believe in their problems and root for all of them to somehow resolve them. Yet the randomness that's subtly implied by the play's title—for the laws of motion don't work according to strict formulae; quantum mechanics keeps kicking in—intrudes on all of these people's lives...exactly the way it happens in real life. This is a very wise, very compassionate, and unexpectedly and joltingly profound play.
The excellent cast of 12 contributes much to the depth and urgency of Laws of Motion. Gregg Mozgala (Christopher) and Daniel Piper Kublick (Markus) are particularly affecting among the leading players, while Michael Criscuolo, as customer-from-hell Gordon, threatens to steal the show whenever he's on stage. Everyone in the company does fine work: Sara Buffamanti (Anna), Joseph Gallina (Carlos), Gisela Chipe (Lonnie), Charlotte Williams (Sammy at the performance I attended), Jessica Cummings (Jolene), Matthew Pilieci (Dominic, Jolene's cousin and confidante), Amy Newhall (Jolene's dominatrix), Sarah Matthay (Bella), and Jason Alzaraki (Markus's boss). I should mention that while the subject matter of Laws of Motion is generally pretty serious (and taken seriously), this is nonetheless a very funny, warm, and human play.
Lathem Prince, which followed Laws of Motion the night I attended, is kind of the opposite. A program note by Halfnight and Thor says it's expected to be "a fun, enjoyable, drunken affair," and that's entirely accurate. If you're an anagrammist, you've perhaps already figured out that this is a twist on Hamlet: the basic storyline of that classic work is here transplanted to 21st century Toronto, where a young man named Lathem returns home from grad school after his father dies, only to discover that his dad was probably murdered and that his mother is now cavorting with a strange French man from Detroit named Claude. And his old (ex?) girlfriend Lia seems to be losing her marbles.
Halfnight trumps the outsized tragedy of Hamlet with larger-than-life analogs. How, for example, do you convey in jaded, cynical, post-everything society the kind of incestuous horror Hamlet feels about his mother marrying his uncle? Have Lathem's mom turn into a middle-aged DIY porn actress, with Claude her director and co-star. The characters of Laertes, Horatio, and the Gravedigger are cleverly combined into a single character here, Lia's brother Patio; and other neat allusions to Hamlet pop up all over the place in Lathem Prince. But though the plot is borrowed, this is very much its own work, not a deconstruction or parody of Shakespeare; with vulgarity and rowdiness and, yes, drunkenness, this is an off-kilter look at an off-kilter world where a son tries to make sense of parents who ultimately disappoint him and tries to pull away from a girlfriend he's completely outgrown. I'm not sure Lathem Prince is for every taste—there's lots of what the movies call "adult language, sexuality, and adult situations" here. It's a play that propels forward on sheer caffeinated nerve. Kudos to the high-energy cast, especially Kris Kling as Lathem, who remains steadfastly honest and likeable against the odds, and Hanna Cheek in a very affecting turn as the terribly addled, disturbed, and water-fixated Lia. Bryan Grossbauer (Patio), Cindy Keiter(Gertie), Michael McGregor Mahoney (Claude), and Ralph Petrarca (Lathem's dad, William) round out the cast.
I've focused so far on Halfnight's writing because that's what incites the drama in Theater in the Dark with Lights. But I'd be remiss not to spend some time on the brilliant direction of both plays I saw by Kristjan Thor. Using only a few set pieces—just some chairs and some square table sections that sometimes join together to make a larger rectangular surface—and some appropriate props, he is able to conjure the disparate worlds of the plays: the diverse corners of New York City portrayed in Laws of Motion and the antic Great White North of Lathem Prince. Thor has not only cast the pieces sharply but he's clearly let the actors do the kind of exploration needed to mine complicated characters. And he's found a way to make the productions fluid and immersive: we see all the missing details in our mind's eye, while the simplicity of the design facilitates quick changes to make the repertory concept work.
You can read a review of the third play in this rep, God's Waiting Room, here (this is a review of the FringeNYC 2005 premiere of this piece, with a different cast and director). There is something for everybody in this audacious assemblage of plays. Check one or more of them out!