nytheatre.com review by Melle Powers
August 8, 2008
The premise of Spite, a play by Tariq Hamami, is intriguing: Five strangers are brought into a room and told that, unbeknownst to them, they are heirs to a great fortune. The catch: only one of them can ultimately win the fortune and a decision must be made as to who among them is morally worthiest. Thus the wheels are set in motion for a No Exit-meets-Survivor parable, in which avarice and morality are directly pitted against one another.
Director Mark Schneider skillfully sets the tone in the finely pitched opening scene, as each player enters, unwitting participants in a chess game of greed. He keeps the tension ratcheted up as the stakes are revealed and the game begins. He infuses a physical dynamism to this one-set play as the characters anxiously move from coffee-maker to podium to chair. The design team is uniformly wonderful: sound designer Martha Goode's cell phone chimes and elevator cranks add ominous undertones to the tense proceedings; David Newell's costume design is on-point—from the brightly colored accents of the ditzy woman-child to the severe black suit of the austere female attorney, the clothes speak volumes about the characters before the actors utter a single word; and scenic designer Shoko Kambara's well-placed set pieces transform the bare brick walls of the Cherry Lane into a remote warehouse where mysterious things happen.
Hamami's script, which examines the relativity of morality, is provocative but uneven. I really enjoyed the skill with which he draws his characters: they are all multi-faceted and their individual motivations ring true. Even though the premise sometimes feels a bit contrived, he has set up the rules for this universe very adeptly and gives his actors some great material to sink their teeth into. However, there are a few plot holes that never quite get resolved and I had a difficult time following some of his arguments (such as a lengthy story concerning the female attorney and her actions in a case she handled—a story that seems to set the parameters of how the participants are judging one another, but the specifics of the story are very convoluted and I lost the substance of his point). And because this is ultimately a story about a bunch of lobsters in a pot of boiling water, we want to see them really claw at one another. While some great groundwork is laid, I'm not sure that the delicious promise of the meaty premise is fully delivered upon.
The performances are universally good. Aimee McCabe balances bubbly optimism with a certain amount of pragmatism as a woman who has adopted blind faith to balance the effects of a hard past. Helen McTernan brings a sultry crispness to the mysterious puppet-mistress, Ms. Vant. Mike Lavoie oozes intensity as the skeptical Oliver and John Harrison is all self-assured charm as the smart Alec. Jason Altman is heartbreaking as a nice guy that you root for to finish first, and Letitia Lange is dynamite as a hard-edged lady lawyer, and manages to convey inflexibility and vulnerability at the same time.
Spite is very enjoyable and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a thought-provoking drama with a touch of humor.