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On the Line

Together we were like some miracle alloy that couldn't be broken. We had this unity. This unstoppable force, like a waterfull. You just had to watch it and hop. --- Jimmy

David Prete, John Zibell, and Joe Roland in On The Line
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
It would be nice if more acting teachers could give their students the kind of support needed to get their theatrical ambitions to the next level-- a professional production and a respected theater, if only for a short time. That's just what Mike Nichols has done for three of his New Actors Workshop students, one of whom, Joe Roland, is also a fledgling playwright. What probably persuaded Mr. Nichols to temporarily switch his directing hat to become a producer, is that Roland's On the Line looks at a class of people who aren't regularly represented on contemporary stages and at a situation that has changed the face of small factory towns throughout the country.

With playwright Clifford Odets' working class family saga, Awake and Sing, currently being revived on Broadway, On the Line seems a timely link to the agitprop writer since its plot pivot is a strike at a manufacturing plant that drives a wedge between three tightly bonded men even before it sends the entire town into a state of upheaval. While the strike theme that drives On the Line forward is sure to remind those familiar with Odets famous Waiting for Lefty, about a real 1934 cab drivers' strike. Others might recall Strife about a long lasting coal strike written by John Galsworthy now remembered mostly for his Forsythe Saga.

At any rate, the strike in Roland's unspecific anywhere USA town is indeed critical to taking Dev (Roland), Mikey (David Prete) and Jimmy (John Zibell) from A to B to C -- A: shared diner breakfast, welding parts of the unspecified product their factory employer manufactures, and after work beer drinking. B: a strike to retain medical benefits breaks up their comfortable guy routine and friendship. C: The strike ends and the three friends must deal with their changed work lives and the painful rift in the three-way friendship.

And so, while someone is bound to come along to write a play that takes a more measured look at the death of American factories and the new Walmart economy, Roland is no born-again agit-prop playwright. The strike that overhangs his play is a means for getting at his major theme about the value and power of friendship. His dialogue for Dev's opening monologue, and the three-way memories of the friendship's beginning when they were seven, shows Roland less bent on being a budding theatrical social conscience than to channel the f-ing, tough guy world of David Mamet.

Under Peter Sampieri's gently laid back direction, the camaraderie between the three men, now in their early thirties, comes across as genuine. Dev's opening declaration that these friends and this way of life give him a daily sense of belonging ("Every morning I get up. I know who I am. . . I fit. Everything about me fits") has considerable resonance. Still, one can't help wondering about parents and sisters who are part of life in these small town comfort zones. There's also the niggling thought that Jimmy's having gone to college and Mikey showing a strong interest in getting on in life might not have eventually broken up the three musketeers solidarity anyway.

The set-up of having Mikey take the management job to have someone from the ranks representing the bosses to the strikers, making Jimmy the union manager and leaving Dev hunkered down with the rebellious strikers is a bit facile, but it works. With a somewhat more detailed set, a few plot strands strengthened and a try at having Dev make his big emotional leap less obvious, On the Line might just be on the road towards numerous small town productions.

Playwright: Joseph Roland
Directed by Peter Sampieri
Cast: Joe Roland, John Zibell, David Prete
Set Design: Michael McGarty
Costume Stylist: Robin L. McGee
Lighting Design: Brian J. Lilienthal
Sound Design: Peter Hurowitz
Running Time: 90 minutes, including one intermission
Produced by Mike Nichols at Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street (Off 7th Avenue, 1 block south of Bleecker), 212/239-6200
From 3/17/06 to 4/23/06; opening 4/12/06.
Tues through Sat @ 8:00pm, Sat & Sun @ 3:00pm, Sun @ 7:00pm.
Tickets: $36
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 4/10/06 performance
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