Seinfeld meets Ionesco

Friday, November 12, 2004
Goldfish Publishers

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, [sic] is defined: “Thus; so. Used to indicate that a quoted passage, especially one containing an error or unconventional spelling, has been retained in its original form or written intentionally.” Playwright Melissa James Gibson has created action to go along with this literary concept, no easy feat. Her three main characters, abandoned Theo (Joseph Kremer), rudderless Babette (Amanda Kochert), and denying Frank (Samuel E. Wilkes) are living side by side by side in cramped Manhattan quarters, friends more by New York City’s precocious habit of haphazard juxtaposition than by any true bond beyond their desperate circumstances and childish refusal to admit defeat. Theo, a musician, has lost his wife (literally), Babette, the author of a book, is literary to a fault, and Frank dreams of being an auctioneer in an attempt to capture and hold an audience’s attention in the way he is unable to in life. The dialogue these three speak at and occasionally to one another sounds like absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco has written it for an episode of Seinfeld (unless you are from New York City, in which case it uncannily sounds like another day on the subway). The lack of truths they say to each other about feelings and facts is less regrettable than the lack of truths they see about themselves. It is this constant state of denial that makes it such a deliciously heartbreaking play to experience.

Director Ron May has staged it as a gigantic round robin, ingeniously blocking it like a game of whack-a-mole. The characters pop in and out of their cubicle-sized apartments frenetically searching for themselves in the eyes and comments of the other two. Dialogue is often simultaneous and repetitive, and it is only in those rare times of true emotion or utter aloneness that they reach bottom and offer the audience stark views into the abject emptiness of their lives. It’s delicious, deliberate, and nasty fun that could offer us a view into our own selves if we weren’t so happy to be laughing at the self-torment of others.

The three performers make it very easy for us to enjoy their character’s pain. Kochert is the central glue that holds these two very different men in orbit around each other. She captures the hollow intellectualism and desperation of Babette, simultaneously compelling and repulsing everyone around her while desperately grasping at anything that resembles hope. Kochert’s emotions are true and her physicality a mix of uncomfortable and fetching. Kremer more traditionally presents Theo’s haphazard life and feelings. He is great at fading into the duos that this trio creates to battle those who show weakness. He barrels ahead with his character’s door-rattling self-deception. Wilkes is great at presenting his character’s blissful ignorance, weaker when his character falls into fits of whining and compliment searching. Though never seen, the integral Airshaft Couple (Niki Marinis and Dallas Roberts) are great at portraying a New York staple: the people you never meet who dominate your life with their spied-upon conversations and arguments.

Joseph Benesh’s set is a perfect realization of the claustrophobia inducing apartments that pass for living quarters in Manhattan. There are some sight-line problems because of the nature of the creation, but these are never too imposing. Randy Braunm’s lighting is impressive and even has a few flourishes of brilliance. Benjamin Monrad’s sound design gets it right acoustically and musically. Justin DeRo’s costumes are nice mini-commentaries on each character.

Stray Cat does it again. Who in their right minds would produce such an obscure and intellectually enjoyable play? Leave it to May and his cohorts in the litter box. They offer the kind of fare that balances the musty classics and teetering warhorses that most companies drag out to appease audiences who feel that theatre is all about getting dressed up and paying for museum pieces the canon of white men says we must see. Keep up the good work, cats and kittens.