Hard Times in Hell's Kitchen

Two massive electrical outages during two very different decades provide a conceptual framework for J. Anthony Roman's Blackouts, currently being produced by Swandive Studio at Center Stage. The play, an exploration of the problems of addiction, family, and responsibility, has serious flaws yet manages to pose a few interesting questions. Blackouts' first act presents two married couples, Eddy and Sarah and Janice and Phil. Eddy is an artist who dabbles in cocaine while in the throes of creation. While Phil gives up his fly-by-night lifestyle in favor of a steady but unrewarding career, Eddy stakes his entire future on one gamble, quiting his job and betting on success as an artist. When his endeavor ends badly, Eddy descends into addiction, throwing his life and his family away during a blackout in 1977.

The second act picks up the family's story a generation later, in 2003, with Eddy and Sarah's adult son James living in the same Hell's Kitchen apartment with his wife Evy and newborn son. Roman's script falters with this second family, turning James and Evy's relationship into a reflection of his parents'. The impulse to show the generational effect of addiction is admirable, but the second half of the story comes across as a pale imitation of the first. The trajectory of the act is telegraphed from the moment that Evy enters and pours herself a glass of wine. Worse, in the final moments of the play, Roman shies away from James' dramatic and difficult decision to save himself by walking away from his alcoholic wife.

Nevertheless, Roman's script does some things very well. His writing has an almost filmic quality, full of short scenes which combine to form a portrait of his characters' lives; this is most effective in a powerful first act "montage" of scenes depicting Eddy's descent into the hell of addiction.

Roman also creates some solid characters. Sarah, for instance, is admirably drawn. Her final confrontation with her fleeing, drug-addled husband is heartbreaking and believable. The strength of her text is aided by a strong, understated performance by Jamie Klassel, who doubles in the second act as the appealingly goofy Cyan. Phil, strikingly portrayed by Zachary Fletcher, is a compelling foil to Eddy, and Lisa Snyder's flirtatious and materialistic Janice has such a strong personality that it would have been interesting to see more of her. Although Max Woertendyke is appealing as both Eddy and James, he tends to rush through his monologues, making his characters somewhat difficult to follow in their most pivotal moments.

Director Jill DeArmon's production is solid and exceptionally well-designed. Set designer Jen Price Fick has created an attractive urban apartment for the action, complete with exposed brick, grungy gray carpeting, and a cutaway wall which offers a view across the courtyard to the apartment of Eddy and Sarah's next-door-neighbors and best friends. The set is well-designed and the transformation from the first act to the second clearly depicts the different means and interests of the two different generations of inhabitants. Unfortunately, the intermission scene shift took an ungainly 30 minutes, much longer than seemed necessary.

The costumes, designed by Hollie Nadel, were solid, as was the lighting design by Joshua Rose, who created a highly realistic effect of headlights passing the apartment's street-front windows. Shane Rettig's sound design deserves a special nod; he provided believable street sounds which, when the city was plunged into the blackout, slowly turned into the frenzied honking and traffic noises of impending gridlock. He also managed to provide the show with a reasonably believable cooing baby.

Although the second act of Blackouts is disappointing, the play does divert and -- with the addition of appealing performances and strong design -- is a decent evening of theater. Hopefully, Roman will continue to explore these characters and concepts in his future work.

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