If catastrophe has provided inspiration to artists at least since the days of Aristotle, in more contemporary times The Flea Theater has provided a forum for plays that respond to contemporary crises (Anne Nelson's The Guys to 9/11, Beau Willimon's Lower Ninth to Hurricane Katrina). With The Great Recession, The Flea takes on the current economic downturn with an evening of ten minute plays by six prominent playwrights (Thomas Bradshaw, Sheila Callaghan, Erin Courtney, Will Eno, Itmar Moses, and Adam Rapp) whose careers have been nurtured by The Flea. Performed by The Bats, the Flea's company of early-career actors, The Great Recession creates not only a collage of stories about economic hardship but a snapshot of how some of the country's most talented playwrights respond, in their work, to crisis. One of the great pleasures of the evening is seeing each playwright's signature style distilled into ten minutes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rapp's has a vigorous fight to the death; Bradshaw's a gang of gleefully shallow people aping real feeling; and Callaghan's a smattering of stream of consciousness dialogue that teeter-totters between wisdom and gibberish.
The plays' scopes range from the national (Eno's Unum cleverly follows dollar bills in transactions to and from the Federal Reserve) to the personal (Moses' Fucked looks at the recession's subtle impact on the trajectory of a young couple's relationship; it also makes really good use of cell phones). Striking a balance between the two, Courtney's Severed infuses multifaceted impacts of the recession with a sweet human exchange. That's perhaps one of the best things plays can offer crisis, and Courtney achieves it with a nod to the role that media has played in narrating the recession. Four actors, splayed across the stage in cut-out frames indicative of monitors, discuss the recession's impact on their lives. Footage for a documentary, their stories comprise a literal backdrop for the interaction at the crux of the play: an artist (nailed by Amy Jackson, who balances quirk with resignation) and a businessman (Ronald Washington, with relaxed certitude) share an unlikely exchange while awaiting their turns before the camera. Director Davis McCallum deftly shifts focus between the dialogue and monologues while the likable ensemble lends warmth to each story, particularly Reynaldo Piniella in the role of an aspiring actor who explains that he's "not even at the status level to be in a show with a big enough of a budget to get cancelled." The line draws big laughs from an audience evidently familiar with the predicament.
Severed is not the only play of the collection to draw upon the recession's impact on the theater world: New York Living tells the story of theater kids swapping romantic partners and dealing with the real estate fallout that ensues. Bradshaw's writing clips over familiar tropes without dwelling in sentiment. His plays are among the funniest, darkest work written today. They are also proving to be among the more difficult to direct. Zany characters spiral out of control and into absurdity, but if played as broad comedy, his calibrated writing loses its satirical bite. Played too straight, on the other hand, it comes across as blandly made for TV. Director Ethan McSweeny here tends toward the former, to mixed results. An enthusiastic quartet of actors (Raul Sigmund Julia, Anna Greenfield, Andy Gershenzon, and Morgan Reis) delivers an engaging performance as individuals but never quite gets on the same stylistic page. Literal bells and whistles (okay, only the bells are literal) go off each time a character says the word recession, accompanied by a light cue, which is more goofy commentary than the script seems to require. Still, the overall effect of the play is a happy one that gets momentum up and keeps it there.
Other plays in the collection take a more dystopic approach. Adam Rapp's Classic Kitchen Timer tells the story of out-of-work Midwestern laborers who come to New York for a kill-or-be-killed social experiment. Hosted by a ghoulishly suave Nick Maccarone, Classic Kitchen Timer positions the recession between those for whom it's a disaster and those for whom it's an opportunity. Sheila Callaghan's Recess, in contrast, is set in a near future in which the Recession has worsened, apparently affecting everyone: nearly a dozen destitute young people share makeshift quarters in a cramped basement, struggling to hold onto sanity and stave off starvation. Director Kip Fagan fails to elicit much in the way of hard edges from the youthful cast, which keeps their familial tenderness from achieving real poignancy. Recess is perhaps the one play where an absence of older characters feels limiting.
On the whole, however, the ensemble of young actors lends the production a feeling of camaraderie. Transitions between plays are undertaken by the ensemble, with as much attention to presentation as to execution, which goes a long way toward creating unity between the six plays. Onstage, the Bats' ease with one another makes a strong case not only for the benefits of the Flea's training program but for the high quality of work that a theater with a resident ensemble can achieve.