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Word Play

A show about language doesn't speak to its audience

R. Brett Rohrer and Tami H. Moon are two characters in search of some direction.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 11/25/2009

In her director's notes for [sic], Strand Theatre Company artistic director Jayme Kilburn doesn't sound very enthusiastic about the play. "[sic] is the most unconventional play I have ever directed," she writes. "Frankly at times I just don't get it." That appears to be the problem with this production. No, [sic] doesn't have a conventional plot--it dabbles in plots only to discard them like unmatched socks. It's more about language than anything else. But Melissa James Gibson's script has power, power that Kilburn unfortunately doesn't tap into.

The story involves three people living in an apartment building. Their lives become intertwined partially because of shared friends and partially because of proximity. Theo (R. Brett Rohrer) is a composer trying to create the perfect music for an amusement-park ride. Babette (Tami H. Moon) is writing a history of the outburst, funding her life in the meantime by borrowing money from everyone she knows. And then there is Frank (Alec Lawson), a jilted lover, whose main ambition in life is to become an auctioneer. They are all, let's be honest, losers. And they think as much about one another. As Babette says, "when choosing friends you're either drawn to people you wish you were or drawn to people you're afraid you might be." These friends have definitely done the latter.

The play lacks a straightforward narrative. It at times feels to be going one way or another--murder mystery, romance--but those forays never become more than tangents. [sic] does, however, explore these three people's relationships and does so with remarkable depth. You learn a great deal about all three characters as they do pretty much nothing besides talk to each other about nothing much. Theo's wife left him and now he has feelings for Babette that she mostly does not return. Frank's boyfriend Larry broke up with him, leaving him hopelessly adrift. And Babette is just a mess.

Sadly, under Kilburn's direction the performances are a mess, too. Moon is unceasingly shrill as Babette. Lawson's Frank is narcissistic and callous. And Rohrer plays Theo as if an autistic Rainman, which feels like a cop out. Each actor completely commits to the character and brings them believably to life, but there is nothing remotely likable about them. Instead, you watch people shrieking, snarking, or behavioral tic-ing at each other for a very long hour and 10 minutes. The script does not necessitate these choices, and while watching you're often struck by how much more moving and engaging the play would be if the actors occasionally delivered a line softly with some sense of vulnerability. Instead, the performances completely lacked nuance, which feels especially wrong in a play that is all about nuance.

Kilburn also fumbles the "airshaft couple." The couple is portrayed by Moon and Rohrer using thick New York accents, and the lights are lowered to differentiate these scenes from the rest of the play. But these scenes never feel well integrated or sufficiently stand alone to the production, and Moon in particular does not do enough to differentiate Babette from the airshaft woman. Frankly, I wouldn't have the slightest clue who this couple was--though they are clearly breaking up and dividing their things--if I hadn't read the author's note that comes with the script.

As a director, Kilburn's strength here appears to be in choreographing scenes. She keeps the actors ping-ponging around the tiny set throughout the play, and small details like Babette taking off her shoes before entering Frank's apartment really add to the story.

The stage itself is a group of wildly painted platforms in the middle of the small theater space, with door frames and a few scattered pieces of furniture. It is interesting that Kilburn chose such a wide open set and an in-the-round view, despite the fact that in the author notes Gibson writes: "it is vital that the concept of an obstructed view be explored in some tangible sense within the production as a whole. . . . In this way, the visual perspective of the audience is at times as limited as the outlook of the main characters."

Still, the show has moments of greatness. A scene in which Babette and Theo describe Larry's party to the miserably uninvited Frank was lively and funny, and offered a wonderful juxtaposition to the beaten-down feel of the rest of the production. If only there could have been more moments like that instead of the unending drone of the loathsome and self-absorbed being unpleasant to one another. Kilburn writes in the program that she picked this play after she couldn't secure the rights to her first choice, saying, "I was in a pinch. I read [sic] and I liked it, but was not sure why." Unfortunately, that lack of understanding is abundantly clear in this performance.

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