nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
May 13, 2006
Christopher Denham’s gripping new drama, cagelove, does what few new plays do: it tells the truth, about a great many things. The truths it speaks are the dirty kind, so there’s little emotional uplift to be had. Which may not make cagelove popular with some, but those who seek it out will have a powerful and gratifying experience.
Sam and Katie, an attractive Chicago couple in their late 20s, are a month away from getting married. But their relationship has recently taken a turn for the worse. Katie is recovering from a rape, allegedly at the hands of an obsessive ex-boyfriend. Ever the dutiful fiancé, Sam has hired a lawyer and is trying to build an airtight case against the accused. But is Katie telling him everything about the events of that fateful night? And who exactly is making prank calls to their apartment, and buzzing the front door intercom? Suspicion and paranoia build, and slowly poison their relationship. Add to this fragile mix Katie’s older sister, Ellen, who may or may not have an agenda of her own at work in all of this.
This is confident, assured work by both Denham and director Adam Rapp. Their unified thematic clarity about the play builds tension right away. cagelove opens with a couple of minutes of silent action between Sam and Katie in which nothing needs to be said: the feeling that something is not right between them can be felt as clearly as a sharp blast of heat. But, their dilemma isn’t revealed right away: cagelove leaks information slowly and deliberately. Denham and Rapp never pander to the audience, trusting them enough to figure things out on their own (or at least to revel in the mystery of it all until the answers are forthcoming). cagelove is lean and evocative, without one bit of excess. Denham’s writing is sharp and focused, giving only what it needs to in order to get the audience’s imagination going, and then stepping back before it veers too close to overtelling anything. Every scene brings new surprises, and propels the story forward. And the things Denham has to say about jealousy, sibling rivalry, and the obsessive nature of love, while not exactly life-affirming, will feel uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has a brother or sister or has ever been in love.
Rapp’s direction follows in a similar vein, peppering informative little tidbits everywhere without drawing attention to them. This is theatre you have to pay attention to. Behavior speaks as loud as words (and, in some cases, louder), so the dynamic between the characters has to be considered as much as what they’re saying. In one scene, the key to understanding the dynamic lies in a two-thirds empty wine bottle, that is never looked at or referred to, sitting on a table. In another, it’s the way one character intently walks towards another in wordless response to a question. Other pieces of info follow slowly—like that aluminum bat next to the dresser, and that photographic equipment sitting in the corner (both of which you know will come into play later). Rapp uses all of these elements to create a foreboding sense of danger and uncertainty that serves cagelove well.
And, the actors are riveting. Daniel Eric Gold, Gillian Jacobs, and Emily Cass McDonnell all know how to explode a silence to their collective advantage, endowing cagelove’s quiet moments with behavioral communication that speaks volumes. The clarity and specificity of their work here complements Denham and Rapp’s efforts well, with each cast member giving a detailed and nuanced performance. Gold convincingly descends into Sam’s jealous suspicion, while Jacobs perfectly inhabits Katie’s frenetic placating. (They also make a very believable couple, I should add.) McDonnell, in the play’s trickiest role, is simultaneously driven and defeated as Ellen. Despite cagelove’s emotional squalor, all three actors successfully make their roles sympathetic: you want to like them, even though none of them is on their best behavior.
cagelove is an accomplished work by a distinctive new voice. Denham has the courage and conviction to be brutally honest—something always to be celebrated, and which we could use more of in today’s theatre. Let’s hope to hear from him again soon.