The prison drama has a familiar formula: the grizzled veteran nearing parole, the hotheaded younger inmate spoiling for a fight, the wary authorities, the well-meaning outsider taking up the inmates’ cause. The difference with Cori Thomas’ Lockdown is a) it’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theater 2019, not Warner Brothers 1931, and b) it addresses contemporary, unsettling issues about incarceration, social inequity, and what awaits anybody getting out of stir. Lockdown could be described as agitprop, clearly on the side of those behind bars and not above using sentimentality to argue its points, but it’s stirring and effective, and anchored by a great performance.
Low-wage workplaces, in two towns separated by a river, provide the backdrop for Lewiston/Clarkston, two 90-minute dramas separated by a meal break. Playwright Samuel D. Hunter peppers these compelling plays with characters who are descendants of 19th-century explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. But their reasons for traveling, or staking territorial claims, have more to do with personal setbacks and family tragedy than with discovery or affirmation. If Lewis and Clark were dispatched westward by Thomas Jefferson, these beaten-down distant relatives, making their way through a drug-addled world of subdivisions and superstores, seem as if they were sent on the road by Jack Kerouac.
There are two Isidores in the Catholic canon of saints: Isidore the Farmer, a simple 12th-century workhand and the patron of farmers and laborers, and Isidore of Seville, a 7th-century scholar who attempted to document the entirety of human knowledge and is patron saint of the Internet. Both Isidores haunt Martín Zimmerman’s Seven Spots on the Sun, a moving anti-war polemic now playing at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, which charts the lingering depredations of civil conflict on the dispossessed members of an imagined Latin American village.
Every now and then a theatrical experience comes around that breaks the mold. It’s no simple task to categorize Gideon Irving’s performance piece running at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Part musical, part stand-up comedy, (very small) part magic act, and part intriguing night in a complete stranger’s living room, My Name Is Gideon: I’m Probably Going to Die, Eventually is far from a one-trick pony. On the contrary, the hour-and-45-minute show is constantly surprising audience members with laughs, gasps, songs and even snacks!
“Camouflage: to be in plain sight, but not to be seen” is the undercurrent of Cal in Camo, about a family dealing with grim challenges. At the heart of the play are a husband struggling to provide for his wife and child; the wife who has little, if any, affinity for her newborn; and her backwoods brother, a man of few words, whose own wife has recently drowned. Given the somber plot, Cal in Camo is often surprisingly humorous, with actors who reach deep to pull out emotionally charged performances.
David Harbour plays Tim, who is languishing in a small Illinois town as a distributor of craft beer. His wife, Cal (Katya Campbell), is a stay-at-home mom. Their arguments may resonate as typical, but the writing by William Francis Hoffman delivers the stories wrapped in a unique casing. Relish the amusing moments, because Cal in Camo is a gut-wrenching play. The topic of Cal’s brother Flynt, his behavior at their wedding two years earlier, as well as his upcoming visit, is fodder for intense, fast-paced dialogue.
When he arrives, Flynt (Paul Wesley) just peels away another layer to the family secrets. However, it’s Wesley’s perfectly stilted delivery of Flynt’s simplistic view of the world that is bold: “You wanna bond with that baby...you take that baby dirty as she is....diaper dirty....you…strip her down...and you strip yourself down…and you get down on the ground you wrap your whole body around that baby….even though you might not know what you’re doin’ at all...that’s nature...nature knows what ta do.... like water knows where ta go...you just gotta let it find you.”
Campbell’s Sybil-like performance is striking; on one hand fighting with Tim, her unmotherly response to the cries of her child juxtaposed with her schoolgirl excitement to see Flynt. The reveal of their mother abandoning them and Cal’s experience in and out of foster homes is telling: “The way I grew up in all those different homes with all those different families...you learn not to want...you keep your eyes in front of you...if you don’t want they can’t take anything away from you if you don’t need they can’t break your heart…but I got caught up in this idea this picture of family this thing you had and I started to believe it.”
Harbour takes Tim's lack of trust to a new, in-your-face level—the performance is solidly Harbour. His sheer size next to Campbell takes on a brutish, commanding figure, and his resentment being dragged to rural Illinois by Cal is evident in every gesture, as well as everything he doesn’t say.
The opening scene with Cal on the floor attempting to pump her breasts of milk feels like it was put there for shock value. In that regard, it steals the thunder from the scene of Cal and Tim fighting about her inability to produce milk, which requires them to purchase formula.
Once Tim arrives home to the family kitchen, complete with sliding door to the backyard, John McDermott’s set design works harder. With Flynt standing on the porch, having just walked out of the kitchen, the set rotates, and he is standing on the back porch. Grant Yeager delivers crisp lighting design and, coupled with sound design by Amy Altadonna, creates the perfect storm scene. Altadonna’s baby cries are spot-on, whether through a baby monitor, from the other room, or coming from the traveling car seat.
Cal in Camo is meant to be uneasy, and director Adrienne Campbell-Holt makes sure of it. The dialogue is fast and the narrative hard, begging to be heard. Living is in the asking and yet being vulnerable to the answers; that’s where the heart grows. For the actors it is evident that they know the material and they listen; even more important, they respond in kind. The camouflage is ripped aside and the human spirit is revealed, bruises and all.
Cal in Camo continues at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place, just west of 7th Avenue) through June 12. Evening performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and at 7 p.m. and Sundays and Mondays; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturdays. Running time is 85 minutes. For more information and tickets call Ovationtix at (866) 811-4111 or visit www.rattlestick.org.
The characters in Utility, Emily Schwend’s drably titled but fascinating new kitchen-sink drama at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, belong to a social milieu that seldom appears on the American stage. They’re working-class folks in the lower socioeconomic spectrum. An offer of coffee means heating a mug of water in the microwave and mixing instant powder into it. Work constitutes holding down more than one shift at a time or just picking up shifts sporadically. Dinner, often as not, is reheated leftovers.
The play opens on a porch in east Texas, where Chris, a guy who has recovered from a pill addiction, is trying to wheedle Amber, his wife, into letting him move back in, just to help with the kids. Chris (James Kautz) has been sleeping on a sofa at his older brother Jim’s place, but Amber (Vanessa Vache) is reluctant to let him come back home. In this short prologue, Schwend lets us know further that Chris has cheated on Amber in the past, with someone at work; that he has a daughter, not by her, who is living with her mother; and that Amber is organized and self-sufficient and probably doesn’t need Chris’s supplementary income, even though her finances are stretched thin.
The focal point of the drama is a birthday party for Amber’s daughter, Janie. (Although the children are never seen, Kate Noll’s deft kitchen design reminds us of their presence: there are children’s drawings under magnets on the refrigerator.) Chris isn’t the child’s father—children with various parents are part of the fabric of this social stratum—but is helping to coordinate the birthday, which puts him in good stead with Amber’s mother, Laura (Melissa Hurst), who proves an unlikely champion for Chris.
“All I know,” says Laura, “is I seen Chris running around here all day long fixing up this house for a birthday party for a girl ain’t even his own daughter.” But, Amber is on top of school, doctors, and box lunches, and responds, “It’s not like it’s just suddenly easier with him here. I’m the one got two jobs, and he’s still another mouth to feed. Another person in the bathroom in the morning. And in and out of work. Can’t send a check when he says he gonna send a check… And actually? It’s easier when I don’t gotta think about him.” In these passages, Schwend displays a gift for dialogue to convey information and attitudes of her characters.
Meanwhile, Jim (Alex Grubbs) is working on restoring Amber’s house, which has apparently been damaged by flooding. He’s in and out of the building, and his presence irritates Amber even though he’s doing the work gratis. He doesn’t get much sympathy from Laura either; she has only a cold shoulder for him.
Director Jay Stull keeps tension in the action and yet lets the strands of Schwend’s drama play out, sometimes just a bit sluggishly, and at others in a pleasantly leisurely way—there’s a late scene that is daringly silent for a considerable stretch while Amber just smokes. His cast is superb. Vache is a grounded, skeptical Amber, a woman perhaps too easily irritable, but also hurt once too often by Chris. She is a formidable protagonist. Kautz finds in Chris an easygoing decency; whatever his past has been, he has left it behind, but he is also not a fully operational adult. The play’s title comes from the utility bill he has forgotten to put money down on—paying it all would be too much for this family—and the power suddenly goes off the day before the birthday party. Hurst’s Laura is also a bit of a strain for Amber; what help she offers comes with opinions, not just about Chris and Jim, but about the danger of vaccines, for instance; at the same time, she has money she has put by and is willing to lend if needed.
Finally, Grubbs as Jim gives a marvelous performance: laconic, grounded and probably in love with Amber. He finds comedy in the deadpan character, and in the comparatively brief amounts of dialogue he is given he manages to convey decency, yearning and self-restraint. The word, “utility,” carries a double meaning of electrical power and “usefulness.” In that sense, the title is apt because the work serves as a useful calling card for Schwend’s dramatic talents as well as the cast’s.
The Amoralists’ production of Utility plays through Feb. 20 at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place between West 11th and Perry Sts.) in Manhattan. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., with a special Wednesday evening performance on Feb. 17, and a 3 p.m. matinee on Feb. 14. Tickets are $18 and may be purchased by calling 866-811-4111 or visiting https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/953828.