Summertime Blues

I have no idea whether the three characters in Michael V. Rudez’s play, On the Way Down, now playing at the Access Theater, are based on people he knows or are complete works of fiction. Either way, he seems to understand each of them intimately. And at the end of this harrowing work, we come much closer to doing the same. Much of this, of course, is to the credit of the three actors assembled in Dan Waldron’s haunting production. Lindsay Wolf is the tightly wound Josie. For years, it seems, she and her friends Browning (Steven Todd Smith) and Stevenson (Rocco Chierichella) have made a tradition of vacationing at a Hamptons timeshare, along with Josie’s husband and children.

Though the presence of these friends is supposed to calm Josie, there is an underlying tension in this visit. Josie ribs Stevenson, a Wall Street analyst, for his wanton ways, and there seems to be some kind of mutual resentment between him and Browning, a man with an ambiguous emotional history. Josie herself seems uneasy about something, though it remains unclear for some time what that may be, and who else may be affected by it.

I said that we come closer to knowing these character's by the play's end. Knowing, however, is a bit different from understanding. Rudez’s script is tricky, since so much is unclear at Down's outset. How does one present a play about secrets? There is a difference between keeping information from a character and keeping it from the audience. When is a development merely a development, and when is it a crucial twist?

I respect Rudez’s structure a lot. He tells his story in a little more than an hour, with three solid scenes providing the classic three-act structure. The first scene introduces us to each character, the second raises the stakes, and the third attempts to make sense of everything. It’s a great template, but one that could benefit from further embellishment.

There is room to expand it further. One way to do that would be for Rudez to further shade in the characters’ early history with each other. All three actors do a magnificent job of creating subtext to move their portions of each scene along, but the audience should only be required to do so much guesswork. And since the action in the present hinges on reveals, some more information about the past would be helpful.

Nonetheless, the performances are strong enough to strip Down of a lot of its guesswork. Wolf, in particular, is outstanding in the central role. Her meticulously crafted performance navigates a tricky tightrope in which she must somehow communicate elements of her character through thoughts that are not entirely reliable.

Chierichella’s role may appear to be a bit more stock, but he fills it completely and injects some necessary humor into the show with a presence that is both commanding and affable. Browning, on the other hand, could use some further development. I liked Smith’s choices for the character, but still felt that we needed to be clearer on Browning by play’s end.

Down moves at a fairly tight pace, though there are a few places where Waldron could usher it along a bit more. But the director is to be commended for his staging – he does a lot of deft blocking; each character is exactly where he or she needs to be for purposes that befit the action and the audience. And Jessie Kressen’s beach house set is rather impressive.

Whether or not Down emerges from a very personal place, Waldron’s production is an effective look at lingering melancholy. It is certainly a trip worth taking.

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