All the Windows On Alcatraz
nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
August 19, 2011
Life is "the [stuff] that happens while you're waiting for moments that never come." This quote, from the mouth of one of the characters of HBO's series The Wire, seems to define the rut that so many people often find themselves in life. People dream grand dreams and plan out the perfect course their lives are supposed to take; some people are lucky enough to get there, while others get derailed along the way. All the Windows On Alcatraz, Rebecca Poulson's play appearing the NY International Fringe Festival, has a muddled start but is at its best when it hones in on this idea as it goes.
All the Windows On Alcatraz is centered on Beth, who, in her early twenties, has turned into a whirlwind of disaster. She's started to spiral into self-destruction after finding out she's contracted HIV from her sometime lover, Steven. She's retreated from all emotion and has driven away both Steven and her roommate/best friend, Amy, the only two people left who seem to still care. To make matters worse, she and Amy are having a party and her childhood best friend, Jacob, shows up on a courtesy invite. Jacob, a Fulbright Scholar now working for Boeing, is a reminder of the successful life that her bad decisions have now robbed her of and a stabilizing presence that she could have spent her life with if she had walked a different path. To make matters worse, her crumbling psyche has created a visit by an 8-year old version of herself, a reminder of the innocent, optimistic girl she was not so long ago; a person she no longer bears even a passing resemblance to.
Beth's character is deeply layered and complex, extremely well developed by Poulson, and beautifully played in both her adult and child version by Kathleen Littlefield and Samantha Debicki, respectively. Debicki imbues her character with a childlike playfulness, conveying that longing to be an adult, while struggling to understand all the sometimes terrible things adults do to each other. She's a perfect foil for Littlefield, who is constantly dancing back and forth over the line of stability and breakdown. Littlefield navigates these complexities masterfully and manages to make emotional turns on a dime. She's at her best in a scene with Jacob at the party where, lost, afraid, and teetering on the edge of a breakdown, she comes on to him in a desperate attempt to cling to and recreate the person she once was and the life she was supposed to have. Emotionally, Littlefield twists and turns and creates a beautiful portrait of someone breaking before our eyes.
Tracy Willet, as Amy, also delivers another standout scene with the 8-year old version of her best friend. As she playfully plans her future dream wedding with a new boy she has fallen in love with, she clings to time with her friend's younger incarnation, trying to remember what she used to love in her best friend. Amy also sees what she had planned for herself unraveling before her. As she clings to hope with a fledgling relationship, Willet is heartbreaking, revealing through her pain and fear that she is on the edge of giving up on Beth. Set perfectly against Debicki's naïve innocence in the scene, her portrayal perfectly captures her inner struggle, and the desperation of being at the end of her rope with someone she loved so much.
Unfortunately, beyond this the play becomes a little murky. The line is often blurred between what is actually happening and what's happening in a dream/imagined state with Beth. Beth's parents are also thrown into the mix at one point and played by the actors who play Steven and Amy. However, the writing and direction does not clearly delineate between these characters and, between, the real and imagined. It becomes fairly confusing as to whether we're watching something that is actually happening or if it's just happening in Beth's head. This is made slightly more jumbled when characters other than Beth interact with her 8-year-old self; the assumption would be that these scenes are in Beth's head but we often get significant character revelations through these scenes. This lack of specificity at times undercuts the good themes and characterization coming out of a given scene. This also bleeds into the sense of place for the play. While this may have been caused a bit by the limitations of time and technical aspects common in the Fringe, often there isn't a very specific sense of where the characters are physically within the "world." They see things in the apartment from the fire escape when it seems they should only be able to see the streets. Characters sit in the audience sometimes but I'm not sure where they are actually supposed to "be." The male characters, while serviceable played by Gene Gallerano (Steven) and Zachary Moody (Jacob), are more plot devices than full- rounded characters, as the ladies are.
Despite these issues, though, the themes are strong in All the Windows On Alcatraz. It shows good potential and has plenty of bright points with specific scenes. Overall, it could benefit from a stronger, narrower focus on the strong idea of the piece. Because while some characters even seem fairly happy next to unstable, withdrawn Beth, none of them is the person they thought they'd be or in the lives they thought they'd lead. They all want something out of the other characters that they'll never get and have created idealized versions of each other. So, while uneven, All the Windows On Alcatraz, has a somber, relatable, worthwhile focus: the people who are stuck just waiting for moments that will never come.