Saturday, August 08, 2009

On The Way Down

All the characters of Michael Rudez's new play, On The Way Down, know what it's like to deal with the "too-much" of life: Browning (Steven Todd Smith) took a four-year mental sabbatical, Stevenson (Rocco Chierichella) buried himself in business, and Josie (Lindsay Wolf) chose to forget things. However, their individual escapes become a prison when the rest of New York City decides to attempt the same weekend getaway: it seems like there are as many tourists in the Hamptons as there are grains of sand. Things start going wrong with the simplest of things--all the bakeries have sold out of bread--and worsen as these three friends are forced to actually live with themselves.

Good premise, but Rudez cripples the show by molding it around Josie, a rather unreliable and painfully fake character. It takes Josie at least three attempts to enter a room, and On The Way Down follows too closely in those insecure footsteps, so constantly shifting its attention that it makes no progress. Furthermore, Rudez's characters speak directly about everything but the plot, keeping things as cryptic as Josie's forgotten memories. It's a neat trick to keep the audience as much in the dark as Josie, but then again, Josie grows comatose: is that what he wants from the audience? Such tricks also draw undue attention to dialogue that is serviceable on the surface, but clunky underneath. (The words "pshaw" and "square" are used entirely unironically.) It's no surprise, then, that Rudez excels at writing Stevenson--this arrogant, womanizing, big-time dick is all surfaces, and his outsized opinions on meaningless things--like Tilda Swenson's unattractiveness--help to divert attention from the threadbare plot.

As the boisterous Stevenson, Chierichella is the most comfortable actor on stage; better off than Wolf, who is forced to hide Josie behind a wide smile that reduces her emotions to a single dimension, and Smith, whose Browning is so totally defined by his former depression that he lurks in the background even as he speaks. They're all so tightly wound, trying to hide the plot, that it's hard to tell if they're skilled. Director Dan Waldron does them no favors: the actions he gives them are so irrelevant that they only make the characters more concealed. (For example: the play begins at 9:00 a.m., with Josie returning to their beach house; she immediately starts to take the clean dishes off the table, and Browning helps her store them in kitchen cabinets. If there's a point to this action--she's not obsessive-compulsive--it's drowned out in distraction.)

One wants to give young, new work like this the benefit of the doubt, but that's all On The Way Down gives its audience: doubt. (To avoid spoiling anything, I'll be cryptic: what's up with the kiss in the third scene? What's the deal with that phone message?) Life has given these characters lemons--there's a big bowl of them on the kitchen table--but Rudez doesn't do anything with them, and his vague result of a play grows sourer by the moment.


Byrne Harrison said...

I have a theory about the kiss. That said, I'd be interested in hearing what the playwright had to say about it. I really wish more shows did Q&A sessions.

newman said...

Playwright talking here. The kiss is what it is. I won't say more. I am glad it is sparking debate, though. As for Q and A after shows, sorry to disagree, but that would be a horrible idea in my opinion. Whatever reason I can think of that would make an audience member want answers to a show (or to why it was written or the alike) would undermine the intention of the show they just watched. I'm going to stop writing now for fear of sounding too "artistic."

Aaron Riccio said...

I don't meant to besmirch the smooch! Rudez, I agree with you: the kiss is what it is, and you're right to leave it at that. That said, the less you explain--and I'm talking within the play itself--the more you have to accept the perhaps far-out interpretations the audience ends up distracting itself with.

However, now speaking as one audience member to another, Byrne, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the kiss: feel shoot me an e-mail (so things stay spoiler-free here).

Byrne Harrison said...

Well, yes, I agree that a Q&A would probably not be practical. But as a playwright, I love being able to talk to other playwrights about their thought processes and intentions. I guess it's like those people who see an item like a blender and want to take it apart to see how it all fits together.

newman said...

I will say this, the play is vague.I know this. To me it is an ode to the mid 20's. That time in your life when you start out in one direction but are contstantly questioning if it is the right one. In a really big nutshell, that's it. The vagueness never bothered me and neither do people's alternative interpretations because I knew I wasn't writing the sort of play that would lend itself to easy answers to begin with. Some people need or want things laid out for them: theatre almost like an essay if you will. I can't stand that. I would rather my shows leave you with questions, whatever they may be. I hope one of those is not,"why did it suck"? but if it is...meh, I tried.