Small Metal Objects
nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
January 11, 2008
Back to Back Theatre's production of Small Metal Objects contains a number of intriguing provocations, the largest of which centers on the space itself. Staged in the Manhattan Ferry Terminal, the company has set up bleacher-style seating at the far end of the station, roughly 100 feet from the entrance of the Staten Island Ferry. The placement of these seats allows the audience to view the terminal in its entirety. If you're an avid people watcher, this is a dream come true.
Each audience member is given a pair of headphones and as the show begins, we hear a conversation between two friends somewhere in the crowd. With simple language and steady rhythms, they discuss love, death, fear, sex, and friendship. The anonymity of these voices creates an awareness that these voices could be coming from any of the prospective passengers. It's an inventive proposition that lends a small degree of humanity to a normally faceless crowd.
Then comes a wonderful moment: the doors to the ferry open and the crowd thins, revealing two characters whose mouths and gestures match the dialogue in the headphones. This reveal focused my attention and created the kind of tension that kept me engaged and looking forward to further exploitation of the space.
The characters are Gary and Steve, two friends with intellectual disabilities. Steve is undergoing an identity crisis, lost amid feelings of loneliness and insubstantiality in the world at large. As countless strangers pass, he confesses his doubts of ever finding love, of ever being cared for intimately, of ever feeling human. His thoughts expressed, he isolates himself amid the surrounding chaos of the station. The image is strong, perfectly illustrating his feelings of invisibility in the world.
Invisibility, both real and perceived, plays a major role in the ensuing drama, which involves Steve's reluctance to work at a catering event until he feels something—anything—human. His stance is made more difficult by two "normal" people's attempts to get him to move. They offer him money, they offer him anger, they offer him confusion, they offer him sex. But the one thing they withhold from him is the dignity of understanding his position. Their inability to see him as an end, rather than a means, drives the play's plot and weighs heavily on its themes.
Back to Back Theatre's founding mission, according to their program and their website, is to "create theatre with people who are perceived to have intellectual disabilities." They believe that in a society that values "perfection," the actors with intellectual disabilities are marginalized and thus able to provide a unique perspective on, among other things, "societies fixation with unilateralism, as well as what this means for those excluded from the norm."
The opening sequence and the moments leading to Steve's self-imposed isolation illustrate this point so perfectly that it is sad to report that the rest of the show has a difficult time sustaining this mission. Part of the problem is that director Steve Gladwin doesn't exploit the space as effectively as he does at the beginning. He abandons the conceit and presents it as if in a proscenium, which limits the ways the space can enhance the drama. By not pushing the actors to interact with the space and not utilizing the space to highlight his actors' abilities, the drama comes off as one-dimensional.
This was brought to light on opening night by the appearance of a drunk man who hijacked the show by singing songs and speaking to the audience about his own history and learning disabilities. His presence exposed a fissure in the production by highlighting the inability of the space and the action to coalesce. Without this interaction, the play doesn't have a chance to build on its themes or pull the audience in to be truly engaged by them. The result is a play of ideas which, while important, never quite develops.
This may have been a singular incident and to its credit, the company handled the situation with grace and good humor (they included the man in the curtain call). The actors are remarkably at ease with the material, and the relationship between Sonia Tubin's Gary and Simon Laherty's Steve is genuinely affecting. Small Metal Objects is a play full of interesting ideas. Just know going in that your enjoyment of and reaction to the piece may be influenced by the myriad distractions proposed not by the company, but by the moment-to-moment happenings at the Manhattan Ferry Terminal.