Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Great Recession

Employment may be down, but personalities are up, thanks to The Great Recession, an anthology of six world premieres from downtown luminaries, commissioned to write about money. The price--$25, with dollar beers at intermission--is right. So is the striking variety of voices: a manic Adam Rapp seems calm next to an over-the-top Thomas Bradshaw; a thoughtful Will Eno looks much deeper beside a brash Itamar Moses; and a sweet Erin Courtney makes the relentless Sheila Callaghan all the more heartbreaking. If one's not your thing, another will be, and as a tightly performed evening they collectively accomplish the soothing/numbing task of taking your mind elsewhere. (Call it the PBR effect.)

Given the stylistic tics each author has, the short-play format actually suits them all best. Adam Rapp's longer works may buckle to maintain their credibility (as the characters increasingly lose their integrity), but his Twilight Zone-y "Classic Kitchen Timer" works perfectly. We need not explain the Host (Nick Maccarone), who looks, sounds, and acts a lot like Heath Ledger's version of the Joker, nor his cadre of capitalism-condemning cronies; instead, we can appreciate what they bring out of their "guest," Lucy Norwood (Sarah Ellen Stephens). Slowly, the significance of objects on the stage comes into focus: the knife plunged into a watermelon; the crying, unattended baby in its carriage; and of course, the ticking, insistent egg-timer, set for twelve tension-filled minutes.

It's unfortunate that Itamar Moses has to follow, with his blatant, unsubtle, and frankly unoriginal "Fucked." Reed (Dorien Makhloghi) wants to break up with Cindy (Jessica Pohly) while remaining the nice guy, only to dig himself into a deeper and deeper hole. It's true that there's no "right" way to break up with someone, but there is a "wrong" way to write a play, and that's when you make an unpolitical drama seem like agitprop.

On the other hand, this brief dip allows the provocateur, Thomas Bradshaw, to make a nice counterpoint: in his grossly exaggerated "New York Living," relationships between people are almost entirely monetary, so when Jen (Morgan Reis) stops having sex with Jeff (Raul Sigmund Julia), he throws her out: "If you're not going to fuck me, then at least blow me or let me titty fuck you." This compounds his problems as an actor; he can't stop getting erections in the middle of his scenes with Adrian (Anna Greenfield), and while she initially feels harassed by Jeff and the boundary-pushing director, David (Andy Gershenzon), she eventually gives in. Costs aren't the only thing we cut, and Bradshaw cuts to the bone when he talks about ethics.

Erin Courtney's "Severed" and Sheila Callaghan's "Recess" are at opposite ends of the spectrum, too. Courtney uses testimonials to opine about America ("Do you think America could have elected a black man if the market hadn't crashed? America does care about color; the color green!") while getting personal in the foreground, in a sweet encounter between the all-business Suit (Ronald Washington) and the more artistic Polka Dot (Amy Jackson). It ends on an uplifting note; even if things are bad, we can choose to see the best in it. Not so with Callaghan's bleak vision of "today"(/the future), in which civilization seems to have broken down within a crowded studio apartment--a girl lies dead in a puddle of her own blood, another exercises herself to death, a third satisfies the sexual urges of the queue outside her crude tarp. The "happy" moment here is when they all come together to share two links of sausage, exciting one another with a description of delicious, fancy food. It's hard to think of us being in a recession after seeing what a true, Katrina-like, collapse would look like, and there are few playwrights able to be as anarchic in plot as they are in their writing (while still being poetic). Special credit to Kip Fagan for directing the myriad pieces.

The final piece of the evening, Will Eno's "Unum" wraps everything up by following the course of a dollar bill from the US Mint through the hands of many interconnected people. Jim Simpson makes a bold statement in his direction by having each character linger on stage long after the money has moved on--echoes? memories? both?--but the play emphasizes the way in which we truly are all connected, by needs, wants, and the color of our green, green blood. It's impossible to really point out any one specific thing about The Great Recession as a body of work--it's meant to showcase diverse works and words--but that last image of the 4o-odd Bats on stage at once, bowing, is a good a point as any. We are all in this together.

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