Lights Out

Director John Hughes perfected the practice of mixing up archetypes and challenging social politics in his 1985 film The Breakfast Club. Yet he gave his story a fairy-tale ending: Judd Nelson jabs a fist into the air, the frame freezes and—hey, hey, hey!—the characters' newly open-minded universe is preserved forever. Unfortunately for real people, like the characters depicted in the Cell Theater Company's respectable production of Blackout, one incident isn't always enough to break social boundaries. When the lights went out in the summer of 2003, the streets of New York City, like the Saturday detention hall in Hughes's film, became a fertile place to yield unlikely bedfellows. Twenty-four hours without electricity put a businesswoman, a saxophonist, a globetrotter, a starving artist, and a newly transplanted Southerner on equal footing. In the aftermath, Collin (the disgruntled globetrotter) and Lena (the headstrong businesswoman) shack up, while Maggie (the New York City neophyte) takes up temporary residence with Alex (the penniless Seventeen writer).

Interestingly, Blackout concerns itself more with what happens to the characters after the lights come back on than with the blackout itself. These five people re-examine their lives in the city and try to milk as much magic and inspiration out of the titular event as possible. A sixth character ably represents this compulsion: Levi, a homeless man, finds a purpose in directing traffic in the absence of traffic lights, and he continues to do so long after the power is restored.

But the enchantment soon wears off, as Lena and Collin's affair goes sour and Maggie falls in love with her homosexual (and therefore uninterested) roommate. The original status quo is more or less restored by the end of the play, when two characters leave the city.

Michael I. Walker's script balances the poetry and clamorousness of city life perfectly, like referring to the Brooklyn neighborhood DUMBO as a "hopeless hipster elephant." Levi, the stock "crazy but enlightened hobo" character, is clichéd and overstated, but otherwise the characters are seldom shoehorned into stereotypes.

Walker's script spends time exploring the "blackout within"—or what went off (or on) inside the characters. They moralize about race relations, sexual identity, and the plight of the Prozac Generation in the big city. The foundations for a noble manifesto are in there somewhere, but Walker's good ideas become tiresome when forced into his play. Overall, the script is effectively composed, but, regrettably, it overindulges in the philosophizing. As a result, the play goes on for 30 minutes too long.

Director Kira Simring and production designer Gabriel Hainer Evansohn have built an intricate world for the play's characters to inhabit. Evansohn's multileveled, overlapping set vividly depicts the claustrophobia of urban life. Simring takes advantage of these levels by guiding characters under scaffoldings and behind staircases; these people are dwarfed by their surroundings, like ants scurrying frantically in an ant farm.

The lighting design, by Evansohn and Carl Farber, supports the scenic design nicely. During the blackout, the lighting designers convincingly suggest a candlelit city and otherwise do a fine job representing city streets and apartments. Unfortunately, one lighting cue was noticeably missed during the performance I attended, and the first half of a scene was played in darkness. This shouldn't be a big deal, but since the play hinges on lights being turned on or off at key moments, it cannot be ignored.

All the performers are well suited to the piece, and their characterizations are energetic. Kate Goehring channels Reba McEntire in her punchy portrayal of the pure-hearted Maggie, who is really the heart of the show. As Alex, Teddy Bergman convincingly projects both cynicism and buoyancy as needed. Darnell Williams adds much variety to Levi, which is a formidable task, considering that the character says essentially the same thing in every scene.

Almeria Campbell has much success in grounding her corporate yet impulsive character Lena. Ryan Patrick Bachand's Collin is a delightful, argumentative know-it-all. As Fitz, the club-owning saxophone player, Kevin Mambo is sensibly restrained.

Conceptually, Blackout is a fine idea for an anecdotal play, but the script lacks the polish to become as culturally relevant as it aspires to be. Even so, with this production a talented group of artists surmounts an undistinguished piece of writing.

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