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Eat the Runt
I didn't bother to get out my calculator to check the accuracy of the advance press notice claiming that this unusual casting system poses 40,320 casting possibilities. However, the one cast I did watch persuaded me that this is not just a gimmicky new wrinkle in the genre of audience participation shows and that the actors are up to their challenging role switches.
The mechanics of having an Emcee (Andrew Robbins -- in a role that has been added since the Summer 2000 Off-Off-Broadway production) guide the audience through the "auditions" does lend an improv flavor, especially since having eight actors read for seven parts turns the proceedings into a contest. That said, this is not an improv show Even the warm-up is as carefully scripted as the ensuing two acts in which the only thing that changes is the dynamic between the actors.
In a nutshell, what playwright Avery Crozier has concocted is a play that deliberately omits descriptions of gender, appearance or ethnic identity from the stage directions. Besides keeping the actors on the tip of their toes, Crozier's conceit also challenges the audience's concept about racial and gender identity. It also drives the plot which entails a series of interviews between the powers that be at a large art museum and Merritt, an applicant for the post of chief grants writer. Chris, a grants writer who by all rights should have gotten moved up to the head writer's job, is instead assigned to shepherd Merritt up and down the elevator of Jerome Martin's high-tech MOMA-ish set to first one bigwig and then another: Jean, a human resources coordinator. . . Hollis, the curator of modern art. . . Royce, director of development . . . Sidney, a trustee. . . Pinky the museum director.
Merritt's efforts to relate to the individual personalities of his potential colleagues and superiors indicate that he might have a death wish about the job opening that brought him all the way from California to an unspecified Eastern city. Thus the interviews serve as a role model for how not to get a job. They also skewer the behind the scenes politics of a large institution.
As Merritt moves up the organizational ladder the interviews tend to turn ever more bizarre. The interview with Sidney the trustee has racial overtones and pointedly illustrates the effect of the casting on the comedy. When Weil Richmond who played Merritt at the performance I attended talked about being African-American the resulting laughs had a lot to do with his being white. Had LaKeith Hoskin, who's black, played Merritt instead of Chris, the audience reaction would probably have been quite different.
Our job candidate's most outrageous opinions are reserved for his meeting with the museum director when in a burst of I don't give a damn outspokenness he elaborates on his theory of the survival of the fittest ("If people are stupid enough to smoke, put more carcinogens into cigarettes and let the foools die faster"). His inspiration, and the source of the play's title, is his own dog who, when s he had puppies "ate the runt".
Conceivably the casting ploy could boost box office sales of tickets to second-time around viewers. In my view, despite director Matthew von Waaden's smooth direction and clever and funny as all this is, Crozier is not Shakespeare and Eat the Runt has neither the poetry or grand roles that make theater goers see Hamlet again and again. Given the structure of the second act, I suspect the playwright has the wisdom and humility to realize this himself. Without giving away too many surprises, that second act gives the audience a chance to see the museum administrators in another round of drastically altered interviews and experience the way different actors bring new meaning to the same script.
Preferable to more of those 40,320 casting possibilities would be to see what this inventive young playwright can do with a completely gimmick-free script. I'd bet a few of those Eat the Runt dog biscuits on the program cover that Mr. Crozier would do just fine.