With the economy in the throes of collapse and a historic election looming, I think everyone can agree that this is a unique period for the American experience. At the core of the TMZ-esque obsession with Sarah Palin and the good intentions leading to this fiscal perdition, the root problem seems clear – a fundamentally misunderestimated sense of priority. This predicament is expounded well in Spin, the stageFARM’s bite-sized treatise on lop-sided public opinion, currently playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Spin is comprised of five short plays, each slickly directed by either Alex Kilgore or Evan Cabnet, exploring the crossed-up ethics of the current American zeitgeist. Spin provides novel juxtapositions, such as those between prisoner torture in Guantanamo Bay and the world of Fetish Porn, and also the search for a line between reality television and infotainment. Though at times ridiculous, this dialogue merrily sums up the current landscape with equal parts honesty and satire.
The first entry, “America’s Got Tragedy” by Gina Gionfriddo, provides the most on-the-nose commentary of the evening, by staging a reality show where an Aristotle-quoting literature professor judge must decide whose life is more tragic according to the classical definition: Brittany Spears or a soldier recently killed in the Iraq war. While Gionfriddo’s piece is delicate in the right places, it sometimes errs too much on the side of preposterousness – for instance, Brittany and the dead soldier eventually hook up. All told, the piece fulfills its primary goal in exposing the scope of American concern very well, and Dreama Walker plays a very relatable, compelling Brittany.
“90 Days,” written by Elizabeth Meriwether, was my favorite of the five plays. On Elliot’s last day of rehab, he speaks to his wife-to-be Abby on speakerphone, and becomes painfully aware that his drug problem probably wasn’t the only thing wrong with their relationship. This play works well within Spin’s broader concept, when you consider celebrity rehabilitation centers like Promises and the current fad of checking in and out without really solving the problem. Here, the simplicity of having one character walking around, talking to another who can’t see what he’s doing is a brilliant conceit, making for much comedy and visual irony. Patch Darragh’s silent, secret reactions to a fiancée whom he is clearly very mixed on are hysterical. Rebecca Henderson also gives an amazingly clear and textured performance, considering she is only heard via speakerphone.
In Judith Thompson’s monologue “Nail Biter,” a Canadian CSIS agent, David, attempts to justify his torturing of a fifteen-year-old detainee in Guantanamo Bay. As the soberest piece of a predominantly comedic evening, one wonders if “Nail Biter’s” guilt-inducing testimony about human rights in the age of Youtube will land the way that Thompson hoped it would. The script’s downbeat tone notwithstanding, there is no denying either the power in examining a torturer who believes himself vindicated or Jesse Hooker’s honest, restrained performance.
“Fun,” by Mark Schultz, has much to say about trust, human connection and art through the lens of the fetish porn industry. Grady is a seasoned politico-porno actor, who often stars in X-Rated films with a social or political bent. (One vague description involved Nazi’s, but beyond that it’s up to our imagination.) He’s sharing a ratty waiting room couch with Jamie, whose unique ability – vomiting on people – the avant-garde producer wants to feature in his films. Where Schultz could have hung everything on the vibrant cat and mouse game between Patch Darragh and Dream Walker, he instead takes “Fun” into a surprising realm of significance, suggesting that living in the exciting now, which may or may not include bloody psycho-sexual fistfights, is a good way to blot out a much regretted past. Darragh and Walker are fantastic here: natural, funny and not afraid of the rawer material.
By the time “Tone Unknown,” the final piece by Adam Rapp, came around, Spin had already been through reality television, rehab, torture and fetish porn. Wondering what could possibly finish off an evening like this, I was not disappointed. The Rapture, of course! In this piece adventure journalist Victoria Houselight (who uses a fake British accent) has brought her cameraman on an expedition to find Cerval Hyler, a reclusive rock legend, said to be able to recreate the sounds of The Rapture on his electric guitar. And in a move that echos the opening ceremony of the Olympics in China, Houselight hired an actor with better abs to stand in for the shirtless, bag-headed musician on camera. Rebecca Henderson absolutely owns this piece as the haughty Houselight, and though there seems to be a lot that Rapp wants to say about fake news, theater school and repressed sexuality, the script swings into full-blown absurdity before it reaches any sort of profundity.
Spin largely succeeds in humorously contrasting the disparate elements of the early 21st Century climate and even more so in asking us to distinguish cultural importance from media nonsense.