A CurtainUp Review
The television show Seinfeld was known, famously, as the longest running program about "nothing". Even TV-oblivious readers will note the commonalties between the slice of life it portrays and that of Melissa James Gibson's terrific new play. But while one could suggest that [sic], too, is about nothing -- it's about 90% slice of life and 10% story -- that would short-change its ability to engage us theatrically, in ways television can only dream of.
It is in this realm of theatrical invention, in fact, that [sic] excels. Ms. Gibson peoples her play with three central characters who live on the third floor of the same apartment building, as a result of which they not only share the common bond vis-a-vis their landlord to which the quote above refers, but also occupy an inordinate share of each other's lives. There is Theo (Dominic Fumusa), trained in classical music and now writing "scores" for amusement park rides, Babette (Christina Kirk), writing a treatise on 20th Century Outbursts (she seems to think we can explain our history in such terms) and Frank (James Urbaniak), who is preparing to enroll in auctioneering school in Kansas City. There is more: all share a common friend, Larry (who is only spoken of); an old lady, Mrs. Jorgenson (also unseen), who lives upstairs until she dies; and a couple (Jennifer Morris and Trevor Williams) who live downstairs, but won't for long if there impending breakup stays on course. Oh yes, and Theo's wife mysteriously disappeared and he's in love with Babette (it's a decidedly uni-directional affection), and Frank used to be Larry's lover.
The threesome on three are all of an age where they fall in the chasm between the confident brilliance they exhibited in school, and the realistic getting-on-with-life we call maturity. It's a fertile ground for Ms. Gibson's examination, and a treasure trove of comic opportunities. The dialogue is keen: as natural as it is apt. Gibson seems to have a fascination with things linguistic, and it plays out enjoyably in the punchy conversation of the neighbors, whether Frank is parsing tongue twisters or the three are carrying on an unspoken debate over the correct pronunciation of the upstair's neighbor's last name (is it Jorgenson, Yorgenson or, as Theo seems to insist every time he says it, YorGENson?). However certain the three may be in their use of syntax and grammar, there's an underlying insecurity about their lives that's revealing.
Gibson writes cleverly and in a style that makes us sit up and listen, and also hope that we have found a playwright possessing the seemingly uncommon commodity of writing not only about what she knows, but also about what she feels. But much of what makes [sic] exciting to watch is the energized and creative way Daniel Aukin has staged it on Louisa Thompson's set. Simple in a downtown sort of way, that set is an outrageously elaborate cross-section of the apartment building. With staircases to four levels on our left, it features a main playing area in which each of the apartments is represented by what could be called a glorified closet on wheels, with a door to the hallway on one side, and a window to the outside on the other. Within each can be found the worldly possessions of the tenants -- Theo's keyboard as well as all of his missing wife's clothes, Frank's apparently unhealthy number of cats and Babette's revered telephone. (In one scene, Aukin has her criss-cross the long phone cord to great effect.)
Aukin uses the stage most effectively, gleefully exploiting the dramatic suggestions of Thompson's set. With the apartments turned around to reveal the windows, he masterfully stages a scene in which Frank washes the windows as Theo and Babette talk in her apartment, the opening and shutting of the window of which scales the comic heights. In contrast, the multi-room downstairs apartment of the married couple -- we glimpse but never quite see them, hearing shards of their conversation in the way a nosy neighbor might -- is extravagantly realistic, even if neither the play nor the direction are fully satisfying in explaining what we are to make of them. And after her death, Mrs. Jorgenson's spirit is represented in a way that's a paragon of off-off-Broadway ingenuity.
We've seen and admired the work of James Urbaniak many times before, and he does not disappoint us as Frank. The quirkiest of the three oddballs, his line deliveries alone are a delicious treat. Ms. Kirk's Babette resounds, in a performance that shelters her anxieties beneath the thinnest of veneers. Mr. Fumusa is fine, although there is a sense someone might have done more to embellish his character.
Is it all really nothing? It seems to me [sic] is really something: another fine offering from this daring company that rarely disappoints, and a fine new playwright who is spending the season as its artist-in-residence.
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