nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
January 13, 2006
Rinne Groff’s newest play, What Then, is likely to get her nominated for membership in the Great Playwrights Who Turn Out The Occasional Clunker Club. Not that there’s any shame in that. Any club whose ranks include Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and even Shakespeare is one that most people would want to belong to. And based on the strength of the two plays of hers that I’ve seen previously, The Ruby Sunrise and Jimmy Carter Was a Democrat, Groff is on her way to becoming a dramatist of such stature. But her current offering is liable to test the patience of anyone hoping for more of the compelling profundity and showmanship that defined both of those works.
Set in an unnamed city in a post-apocalyptic future, What Then centers on the household of Diane and Tom. Diane has quit her job as an accountant to start a new career as an architect. The only problem with this transition is that Diane is only an architect when she’s asleep and dreaming. Her husband, Tom, works for a big international corporation that may be responsible for much of their city’s current environmental distress. His daughter, Sallie, is a recovering drug addict (or is she?) who will stop at nothing to get herself approved for an apartment in a respectable housing complex. And then there’s a mysterious and charismatic figure who goes by the name of either Bahktiyor or Tom (depending on whom you ask), and who may be Sallie’s boyfriend, Diane’s landscape architect, or Tom’s drug dealer (also depending on whom you ask).
Groff’s political consciousness is front and center in What Then (she previously tackled government union-busting in Jimmy Carter, and corporate America’s growing interference with artistic content in The Ruby Sunrise). This time she turns her attention to the environment, and puts forth a clear and simple message: we must take better care of our environment if we want to have a planet to live on. But Groff’s means of conveying her message are ineffective. What Then is written in fanciful and surreal fashion, relying less on traditional linear narrative and more on symbolism. Tomatoes, canoli, blood, and Tom’s mysterious briefcase are all recurring symbolic motifs. But we never find out what they mean. It’s also unclear how much of the play takes place in reality, and how much takes place in Diane’s dreams. Is the housing complex she’s building while asleep coming to fruition in reality? (How fun would that be?) This uncertainty may be intentional on Groff’s part, but it doesn’t serve or clarify anything. There’s also the matter of specifying exactly what’s happened to the world outside. We know it’s not good, but by remaining vague about it, Groff prevents What Then from anchoring itself to any tangible context that the audience can grab onto.
(It should be mentioned that all of What Then’s disparate elements could make for an interesting play with the proper shaping and clarification. As it stands right now, though, Groff’s ideas feel only half-formed—and, at a running time of almost two hours, about 45 minutes too long. For a play that lacks answers and makes the audience work so hard for the few it provides—and doesn’t have an intermission—this borders on unforgivable.)
All of this confusion seems to confound director Hal Brooks, as well. He is never able to make thematic heads-or-tails of What Then, even though he, set designer Jo Winiarski, and lighting designer Kirk Bookman come up with some lovely visuals on stage. The saving grace of this production is the acting. The four-person cast—Andrew Dolan, Meg MacCary, Piter Marek, and Merritt Wever—pump What Then full of whatever life it has. Wever’s take on the apathetic and scheming Sallie is authentic without being exaggerated. MacCary and Marek strike similar chords as Diane and Bahktiyor/Tom; their scenes together crackle with seductive possibilities. And Dolan is excellent as Tom. His big scene, in which he gets increasingly high on painkillers, is almost worth the price of admission alone.
Alas, the actors alone are not enough to make What Then a fulfilling evening of theatre. Groff is a talented writer, and has earned the right to misstep here. Here’s hoping that she gives us a full taste of her power and skill the next time out.