Thursday, February 24, 2011

THEATER: The Hallway Trilogy (Part 1: Rose & Part 2: Paraffin)

[Note: Due to an unfortunate circumstance, I was unable to see Part 3: Nursing, by today's opening. Given how unrelated the first two plays were, and how strongly negative my reaction to them was, I've decided to run the review based only on coverage of Parts 1 and 2. Those were so disappointingly incomplete that I doubt anyone would even notice my omission, but since Nursing sounded the best of the bunch, and because Rapp's certainly capable of greatness, I wanted to be perfectly clear.]

Hallways are a means of transport, not really a destination in of themselves, a fact that is painfully obvious throughout the first two parts of Adam Rapp's Hallway Trilogy. By setting his three plays at fifty year intervals, from 1953's Rose to 2003's Paraffin and 2053's Nursing, Rapp gives himself the leeway to write more about time than character, but his exaggerated vagueness showcases neither. Instead, these plays relentlessly -- and pointlessly -- combine the many versions of Rapp, from the embittered Kindness to the absurd Essential Self-Defense to the violent Bingo with the Indians (lacking, most notably, the intellectual and emotional strengths questioned in The Metal Children).

Rose opens with a familiar scenario: a woman behind on rent, Mary (Julianne Nicholson), uses her femininity to "negotiate" re-entry to her apartment by sleeping with her ogre-like superintendent, Mr. O'Neil (Guy Boyd). Our sympathy fades, however, as it comes out that she's already somewhat of a gold digger, banished back to this Lower East Side tenement with her sister, Megan (Sarah Lemp), after her twice-as-old and many-times-as-rich fiancee caught her cheating on him. Rapp similarly strips away our feelings toward Orest (William Apps), a semi-talented Russian musician stuck caring for his obese mother, when the man abruptly scorns Megan (who he had at one point courted), going so far as to spit at her feet without cause. It's just as hard to care for Jerry (Louis Cancelmi), a nerdy, tight-strung guy: his obsession with Mary is so inexplicable and aggressive -- especially given his Princeton education -- that he's downright creepy.

Even the supposed heart of the play, Rose (Katherine Waterston), fails to leave an impression, mainly because her endearingly fragile mannerisms quickly give way to full-on delusions: she's yet another would-be actress, and she's convinced herself that Mr. O'Neil is actually Eugene O'Neill, whom she once auditioned for, even though the playwright has just died. In the sense that Rose is all about the shattering of dreams and the acceptance of a rather squalid reality -- the play ends with Rose's worried and loving husband, Richard (Logan Marshall-Green), hopelessly waiting for her to return -- it fits that era of dramatic literature. (To be fair, such tragedy has never really gone out of fashion.) But the play is stylistically at odds with itself: a silent clown named Marbles (Nick Lawson) causes mischief; a gangster stereotype named Louie Zappoletto (Danny Mastrogiorgio) drops in to take control of the building's management; Jerry is actually a secret Communist, which gives Rapp room to rant; and Rose just wanders off into an abandoned and supposedly haunted apartment, presumably to commit suicide. Let's just say these plots are far from synergistic.

We come to Paraffin with higher expectations, but it, too, is both a retread and a mash-up of other work. The familiar opening this time -- albeit graphically and effectively staged by Daniel Aukin -- involves the latest in a series of disappointments for the pregnant Margot (Nicholson), as she wakes up to find her rocker husband, Denny (Apps), passed out in the hallway, shirtless but unfortunately not shit-less. Despite her cautious kindness in cleaning him up, he attempts to pawn more of her things, which only makes his brother Lucas (Jeremy Strong), who catches him in the act, resent him -- and covet Margot -- even more. Thankfully, although Lucas is a disgusting human, who uses his Afghanistan War-acquired injury as an excuse to openly fondle his balls in front of his prude Israeli neighbor, Rahel (Maria Dizzia) and her straightforward husband, Ido (Robert Beitzel), Margot is a fully-fleshed character.

If only the plotting were as thought-out. Instead, it turns to the hackneyed, as Margot's best friend Dena (Sue Jean Kim) takes a message from the thuggish Polish stereotype Leshik (Lawson) -- one that involves various large piercing implements and horny, disease-riddled animals subsequently being unleashed on those holes -- regarding the immediate payment of Denny's considerable drug debt. As a result, Rapp is unable to focus on the impromptu sense of community the blackout causes to form between Margot, Dena, Lucas, and their neighbors: a socially awkward Kevin (Mastrogiorgio) and the kind, diabetic queen Marty (Boyd). He's too busy trying to juggle the unnecessary drama with an inexplicably absent Rahel and frantic Ido (even odder, considering it's unresolved) and with Denny's deadline, which comes to a rather anticlimactic (and unsurprising) end, given Lucas's boasts of owning a gun. During the highlight of Paraffin, Margot waxes over the way "one irrational moment can change your life," but all Rapp accomplishes is showing us a variety of irrational moments, sans consequences, sans life-changes, sans -- most crucially -- a real sense of life.

Dramatic flaws notwithstanding, Beowulf Borrit's wide and run-down hallway, which grows more and more decrepit between plays, gives the cast and the three directors (Rapp, Aukin, and, for Nursing, Trip Cullman) a realistic setting, and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater is to be admired for reconfiguring their interior to accommodate such a design. Additionally, Tyler Micoleau's lighting -- which gives a good sense of time passing as it filters through the fire-escape at one end of the hall -- is also terrific, especially when it comes to the varied sources of illumination during Paraffin's lengthy blackout. And Eric Shimelonis's sound design does a fine job of capturing the noise of the modern city, from alarms to dogs, it's filled with bustle. But aesthetics alone are a poor reason to attend the theater; they're wasted here, along with the fine roster of double-cast actors, from Cancelmi to Lemp and Nicholson. The Hallway Trilogy demonstrates only that Rapp is filled with ideas, not that he has any idea how to execute them; such laziness is the theatrical equivalent of squatting.

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