Head Trip

The house has just opened and the audience is filtering in, but Realism has already begun: Stuart (Stephen Plunkett) is sleeping on his couch at center stage. There is no curtain sweep or fade to black that explicitly kicks off the U.S. premiere of Scottish playwright Anthony Nielson's drama: Stuart simply wakes up, and that is precisely its point. Taking us through his character's wild ponderings on an otherwise uneventful day, Nielson cleverly blurs the line between reality and imagination, challenging our notions of each. With Stuart's presence outside the dramatic action, there is no distinct beginning or ending to the fantasy or reality. While many absurdist cerebral plays lose themselves in a surreal haze, Nielson's sharp script takes the stream of consciousness and distills it into a witty and deeply human drama. Making sure that no thought goes unnoticed, director Ari Edelson (also artistic director of the Exchange, the newly established company that replaced the Jean Cocteau Repertory) adds crisp blocking and a fluid pace that helps connect the dots between the lead character's mental ramblings.

We meet Stuart as his friend Paul (Jordan Gelber) wakes him and they have a quick argument over Stuart's insistence on doing "nothing" all day. Although he may only have laundry, television, and moping on his agenda, each mundane task is infused with memories and daydreams, sometimes literally. Dad (Herbert Rubens) jumps out of the fridge to complain, while Mom (a superb Kathryn Rossetter) pops up from the washing machine to remind her son to check his pockets before the spin cycle.

In addition to providing a quirky playground for the constantly moving cast, Antje Ellermann's set skillfully mimics the murky divide between real and imaginary. For example, with the absence of a wall between the toilet and the living room, the audience members are forced to play Nielson's game—to either truly believe there is no separation or to fill in the blank with their own imaginary wall (as one commonly does when watching theater).

In Stuart's unfiltered mind, however, there's no separation between the toilet and everything else. What he thinks throughout his day is an eclectic blend of filthy, offensive, touching, and, most frequently, hilarious. Along with his parents, he's joined by his inner child (Tim Spears), a talk show panel, his ex-girlfriends, and a show-stopping trio straight out of Motown. In multiple roles, the supporting cast serves as an effective pit crew for the protagonist, rushing in and out with equal doses of slapstick and sincerity.

Gelber particularly shines in this style, firing out questions as a pompous talk show host, lip-synching as a (white, male) Nell Carter wannabe, and strutting around in a big fuzzy suit as Stuart's sassy cat. He's nearly breathless by the end of the night, but it's worth his exhaustion: each scene is deliciously funnier for his presence.

As Stuart, Plunkett bounces back and forth between straight man and devilish instigator with a simple twist of his eyebrows or twitch of his lips. He's at his best when Stuart lapses into boyish behavior, adding a straight-faced, velvet-voiced legitimacy to everything from fart jokes to sexual fantasies.

For all its bathroom humor, Nielson's script is ultimately a poignant reflection on relationships. Stuart is seeking closure over his recent breakup with Angie (Ali Marsh). As he leaves her repeated messages, his thoughts turn to his mistakes and joys in dating both Angie as well as his earlier love, Laura (Bree Elrod).

The fawn-like Laura provides a great counterpoint to Stuart's filthy thoughts (though she can't escape being part of them), and Elrod commands her scenes with a hushed gracefulness. Beneath the playful warmth she adds to her lines and movements, her guarded posture and wide eyes show a layer of fragility and fear that hints at the guilt Stuart feels as he mulls over his romantic failures.

While Marsh's character doesn't have quite the same depth or stage time, she delivers a delightfully compact performance. As Angie finally returns Stuart's calls, Marsh's voice-over fuels the show's crescendo. The two actors play their painfully awkward conversation to perfection, with Plunkett desperately fumbling to reach out and Marsh curtly knocking him down at every turn.

As their back-and-forth grows frustrating, Angie asks how they can peacefully end the conversation. "Talk to me like you're going to see me tomorrow," Stuart proposes. What follows is a delicately loaded exchange of typical pleasantries. Though simple on its surface, such a scene exemplifies what makes Realism a wildly intelligent theatrical experience. Like Stuart's lingering presence onstage, their clunky, heartbroken banter resonates well beyond the final line, reminding us that even a performed fantasy can feel powerfully real.

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