Bottom of the World
nytheatre.com review by Stephen Kaliski
September 16, 2010
Bottom of the World, Lucy Thurber's ambitious but undernourished new play at Atlantic Theater Company, tackles far more issues than its relatively brief 90 minutes can endure. What begins as a study of sibling grief soon moves into a bizarre pastiche of Our Town and Big Apple alienation that raises questions of marriage, divorce, friendship, urban vs. rural, gender roles, sex, lesbianism, and the universality of the human experience before eventually returning to grief. The cumulative weight of Thurber's topical concerns is too much to lift us up from the bottom of the two worlds she endeavors to create.
Thurber uses the death of a beloved family member to establish two unique storytelling landscapes. The first is the literal present, in which Abigail (Crystal A. Dickinson) struggles to cope with the loss of her half-sister Kate (Jessica Love), whose sudden death left Abigail abandoned in a city where no one understands her. The possible exception is Susan (Aubrey Dollar), Abigail's best friend who is nonetheless distracted by the decaying marriage of her parents (Peter Maloney and Kristin Griffith).
How can Abigail find solace from the jarring universe of New York? By immersing herself in Kate's posthumous novel about an idyllic country family in Western Massachusetts. This novel, which springs to life on stage as Abigail pores over its chapters, partially mirrors the concerns of Abigail's life, as if Kate is saying to her from the grave, "I'll always understand you."
This dual-world conceit creates an opportunity for great poignancy, but for the most part, the ties connecting the real and the fictional seem so scattershot that we feel as if we're experiencing two completely distinct plays.
And each of them has its own assortment of problems. The relationships in the present are so mired in strife that we're never given an empathetic hook. The play opens with an angry tirade from Abigail, a choice that henceforth elevates her pain above her believability. Dickinson does a fine job, especially when KK Moggie shows up as her newfound lover Gina, but since the play spends so little time addressing so much, Abigail doesn't receive the development she deserves. Also, Maloney and Griffith are stuck in caricatures of a three-quarter-life crisis as the recently separated 60-year-old couple.
The fictional world of Kate's novel, in which most of the cast roughly approximates their characters from the real world, is slightly more compelling. Dollar in particular does beautiful work as Dana, the young wife of Josh (Brendan Griffin) who hopelessly tries to bring together Josh's friend Ely (Brandon J. Dirden) and her best friend Sally (Moggie).
Nonetheless, Thurber has shaped her work as a fugue to reveal parallels between the worlds, and here the pastoral fiction is maddeningly arbitrary. The relationships of the novel, particularly the friendship between Josh and Ely, are made of different circuitry than those of the real. It would be fine if either world stood on its own, but the play's brevity and penchant for lyricism over grounded development hinder this.
After an awkward opening, director Caitriona McLaughlin does her best to elegantly shift between Thurber's worlds. Walt Spangler's sprawling set, whose centerpiece is root system of two-by-fours, creates a lovely overall stage picture, but its clutter forces McLaughlin to stage critical scenes in downstage nooks invisible to half of the house. On the positive side, Alexander Sovronsky and Bennett Sullivan provide evocative country music accompaniment to underscore the poetic past.
Simply put, Thurber has bitten off more than she can chew. Bottom of the World's rush of images, motifs, and relationships may have worked with a more deliberate, less overtly lyrical approach, but Thurber's hurried sprawl instead leaves us with a poem too large for a single page.