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When It Rains

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 13, 2013

When It Rains

Francine Deschepper and Anthony Black in a scene from When It Rains | 2b theatre company

When I looked at La MaMa's winter/spring season brochure a few weeks back, something about the blurb and photo for a show called When It Rains appealed to me. There's really no other way to explain it: I had heard something about the play's author, Anthony Black, but I really had very little in the way of expectation when I made the more or less arbitrary decision that, out of the shows playing during the second week of January at La MaMa, this would be the one I would see and review. Call it chance...

That random choice, which I can characterize as serendipity if I want to give credit to the universe or brilliant insight if I want to keep all the credit to myself, proved felicitous in at least a couple of ways. First, it illustrates the idea at the core of this remarkable play with astonishing clarity. And second, it led me to discover work that moved me and touched me beyond measure: When It Rains is extraordinary theater, wise and funny and human and profound, the best kind of drama, that excites and enlarges me and reminds me I'm so fortunate to do what I do.

It's the story of four people. Alan is a mathematician who now works in finance. Sybil, his wife, is a criminologist turned teacher, who, when we meet her, is many months pregnant. Anna, his sister, is a writer who has been drifting from career to career, currently dabbling in yoga. Louis, Anna's husband, is a philosophy professor at a local university.

These are people who think about what things mean perhaps a bit more than most of us; the conversation that opens the play proper, between Sybil and Alan, is a striking meditation on fate, luck, appreciating what you have, and taking things for granted:

SYBIL: What are the chances?
ALAN: Of what?
SYBIL: That we’d be here?
ALAN: I don’t really catch your meaning. Here like at home? I don’t know, pretty good I guess.
SYBIL: Not that. Well, in a way yes: that. I don’t know. I mean, here we are, we have happiness -
ALAN: Yes.
SYBIL: We’re living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world-
ALAN: Yeah but wealth isn’t happiness-
SYBIL: No I know that, but we’re happy.
ALAN: No, we are.
SYBIL: We both have jobs we like.
ALAN: Well-
SYBIL: But really though they could be a lot worse.
ALAN: Yes, no that’s true.
SYBIL: And of course we’ve been blessed.
(she puts her hand on her belly)
ALAN: Well "blessed" implies a blesser, but yes I see what you’re saying, go on.

In the course of the play—which unfolds in a tight 75 minutes that feels much briefer and constantly inevitable—a whole bunch of stuff happens. The play's title clues us to how things go; so, ingeniously, does the play's entire presentation, which is spare and simple and makes wizardly use of projections (by Nick Bottomley) that constantly remind us of the artifice of the medium and the unseen hand of some external force (call it the stage manager or the playwright; call it the Creator) that seems if not in control than at least capable of emitting arbitrary (random? pre-destined?) obstacles and events that push all of us in the room, actors and audience, in unforeseen directions.

When It Rains is full of humor, whimsical theatricality (the actors interact with the projections in all kinds of delightful ways), postmodern self-reflection, and a profound sense of awe in the face of the unexplainable. Diverse antecedents from Three Dog Night to The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy to the Book of Job to the Chuck Jones cartoon Duck Amuck! pop up; what I was most reminded of, though, was Wilder's Our Town, with which When It Rains shares an unsentimental humanity and a clarity and directness of vision that's rarely achieved in any art that I know of.

Black's writing has no fat on it, and neither does his startlingly clean direction; there doesn't seem to be a syllable or a beat that's not in service of the piece's overarching themes. The cast is splendid, led by Black himself as Alan and also including, in performances that feel definitive, Francine Deschepper as Sybil, Marc Bendavid as Louis, and Samantha Wilson as Anna. Christian Barry (sound and dramaturgy), Leesa Hamilton (costumes), Christine Oakey (stage manager), and Louisa Adamson (production manager) comprise the rest of the creative team, all deserving of our praise and gratitude.

There's a lot of intriguing theater happening in NYC right now. I was lucky enough to stumble upon 2b theatre company's When It Rains. Sometimes we get to make our luck, and here's one of those times: there are five more performances at La MaMa this week, and if you are ready to be stirred up by something potent, elemental, and surprising, you ought to get to one of them.