Bernard Pomerance, who died last year at age 76, is best known for having written that brutal little lesson in humanity, The Elephant Man. That play’s best line, “We have polished him like a mirror, and shout hallelujah when he reflects us to the inch,” nicely encapsulates the playwright’s concerns over the societal tendency to perform acts of charity for the sake of the giver. But, as is discovered in the wandering world premiere of Spin Off, which was drafted in 2003 and revised in 2006, Pomerance’s thought processes were not always so tidy.
In The Elephant Man, a single outlier causes everyone John Merrick encounters to question their identity. In Spin Off, three familiar figures question their own identities, their own realities and the downside of becoming self-aware. Director Ron Canada pumps both a figurative and literal fog across the stage for the entire evening as the confused characters stumble toward enlightenment. Their occasional comic moments suggest that the play would have been more effective if it were half as philosophical and twice as satiric.
Clearly influenced by Pirandello, not to mention Rod Serling and Steven Bochco, the story circles around NYPD Detective Jimmy Marks (Kevin Rico Angulo) and his run-ins with a hooker with a heart of gold named Rosie Ramirez (Megan McQueen) and a police psychiatrist, Dr. Allen (Tricia Mancuso Parks). The first act finds Rosie and the doctor in cahoots. Thanks to appearing in numerous reruns, they have come to realize that they are actually just characters in a TV show, living their lives in a loop. Convincing Jimmy of this takes some doing, but when he realizes he can only remember parts of his past, those that his writer had bothered creating, he sees the light, and the trio concoct a plan to escape their false, walled-in world and enter reality. (On opening night there was an extra Pirandellian twist: the actor Gordon Clapp was seated in the front of the house. Clapp played a police detective in all 12 seasons of NYPD Blue.)
Complicating matters, the trio are also subject to the effects of “trace elements,” character traits that send them off in random directions, or, as they vaguely explain:
Dr. Allen: Tracers. It’s gotta be fragments of other characters, other bits of other backstories. They were left over in your character when it was created.
Marks: By who?
Ramirez: A writer, an actor.
Marks: You don’t know who?
Ramierez: No idea.
Rosie suffers the most from this condition, haunted by a tracer named Yara (Najla Said). For much of the second act, Yara lingers wordlessly on stage, pops up on the set’s otherwise unused television screens and, occasionally, does a modern dance step. It turns out that, of all things, she was a victim of the 1964 coup d’état in Brazil. It’s a strange leap in the story that not only plays havoc with Rosie’s role but riles the theme of immigration that pops up whenever Jimmy ponders what it means to leave a satisfactory, if sheltered, lifestyle for a perceived better existence. Finally, into the mix comes the villainous head of the TV network (Chad Restum) and his henchman Carlos (Thomas Hildreth) whose job is to “execute the characters we don’t need anymore.” They force Jimmy, Rosie and the doctor into realizing that free will only goes so far as they face the choice of cancellation, being recast in a spin-off, or risking the leap into reality.
It is kind of a shame that the play is trapped in the era of frequent reruns. The always-on, streaming and binge-watching model of today would surely have created a whole new kind of hell for all involved. As it is, each protagonist can barely hold it together, making it difficult to feel a connection with any of them.
Angulo plays Jimmy romantically, which is sometimes effective but at other times too passive an approach. He never finds the hard-nosed-cop comedy in a running gag that has him pulling out the handcuffs every time Rosie suggests something illicit. McQueen is workmanlike in her portrayal of the victimized prostitute, but the fact that she and Jimmy fall for each other feels more like an inevitability of the script than an honest discovery between two lost souls. Parks brings a few welcome sardonic moments to the stage, grasping for whatever passes for a good life before meeting a cruel fate. And Restum is cartoonishly pitch-perfect for a play written when the idea of a network executive being able to destroy women’s lives was still just a joke.
The Creative Women of New York production of Spin Off plays through Oct. 13 at the Riverside Theatre (91 Claremont Ave., Manhattan). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and more information, visit cwnyi.org/spin-off.