Emily Young's The Calamity of Kat Kat and Willie just premiered at the West Side's Medicine Show Theater as part of a repertory double bill with The Insomnia Play, penned by another promising young playwright, Jessica Brickman. Consider that a bonus, though: Calamity alone is worth the price of admission. The show falls under a familiar category, that of the one-last-heist premise. Kat Kat (Miriam Silverman), an English expatriate, returns to her old paramour, Willie (Jeremy Bobb), to score another gig. (The caper itself is never fully explained.) The problem is that she finds Willie's edges have both hardened and softened since she last left him. He has gone straight and now works for "the Man" and is immune to Kat Kat's wily advances. Or, at least, he takes a little bit more coercing than he did before. Kat Kat finds she can still get to Willie, but it will take more work than it used to.
But the heist is truly irrelevant to Calamity, which focuses on the love-hate dynamic of its title characters. Heath Cullens directs this study of a relationship as though under a microscope. Both leads grow increasingly more volatile over the course of the play (a compact 90 minutes, smartly delivered in one act). But are Kat Kat's and Willie's destructive tendencies more sadistic or masochistic? Who do they really hurt more—each other or themselves?
Other characters enter their world but never really penetrate it; both Kat Kat and Willie are bottom dwellers whose bubble has already burst. They have come to accept their status as ne'er-do-wells with little chance to better their lot in life. Mostly, of course, because they do not really want to.
Take, for example, Jonesey (Joe Petrilla), a transient whom a wayward Kat Kat takes in toward the play's second half. Petrilla does smart work here: he plays Jonesey as a predator who never even realizes he has become the prey. He emits equal parts street savvy and youthful naïveté. Silverman embodies a similar duality for the duration of the show. Like a moth to a flame, Kat Kat is a character inexplicably drawn to trouble, regardless of the price she might end up paying for it. To her credit, Silverman makes Kat Kat both appalling and sympathetic.
Bobb is likewise adept at playing a conflicted character. In his case, the reformed Willie gradually falls under Kat Kat's spell, and he loses himself to the inner thug he once thought was a thing of the past. Bobb has to channel a lot of rage, but he does so in a focused way. (Both he and Silverman are to be commended for the way they handle the several violent sexual encounters Young calls for them to play.) Additionally, I never found out whether any of the actors in Calamity were truly British or American; so convincing were their accents that I want the mystery to remain shrouded.
Calamity features one additional actor, Erik Liberman, who plays various expatriates attending the same meetings for expats that Kat Kat goes to. Liberman gets several big "numbers," if you will, scenes of performance art in which he appears as a beatnik. In one scene, Liberman even portrays an elderly woman. It is a great showcase for a clearly promising talent, but I am not so sure it is necessary in Cullens's already rich production. The strange ballad of Kat Kat and Willie is drama enough.