REVIEWS: “Continuity”, “Dying City”, and “Nomad Hotel”
Here is a look at three plays that recently opened at three of Off-Broadway’s best non-profit theatre companies: “Continuity” at Manhattan Theatre Club, “Dying City” at Second Stage Theater, and “Nomad Motel” at Atlantic Theater Company.
“Continuity” (New Play, Manhattan Theatre Club) (Critic’s Pick!): Playwright Bess Wohl’s incisive eco-comedy “Continuity” is dead serious. The set of a big-budget Hollywood thriller about climate change finds a giant Styrofoam glacier littered with plastic snow under the beaming sun of the New Mexico desert—an aching metaphor for this trenchant look at the way fictional narratives inform perceptions of reality, and how the slowly creeping existential catastrophe of climate change becomes invisible amid the mundanity of daily living and the small scale of our interpersonal problems. That clash between the fleeting world of the person and the enormity of the world itself is brilliantly explored in this 90 minute “play in six takes” receiving a world premiere production under the helm of director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”).
Reminiscent of “Noises Off” and “Epic Proportions”, the play is structured around the shooting of one pivotal scene of a movie-within-the-play about an eco-terrorist who blows up a glacier that causes a tsunami that wipes out the West Coast—never mind the accuracy concerns of climatologist Larry (Max Baker), a beleaguered on-set science advisor and resident Cassandra. As the play progresses, first-time studio film director Maria (Rosal Colón) battles the pressures of her task, the challenge of being a female woman of color in a male-dominated environment, the presence of her ex—screenwriter wunderkind and bro David Caxton (Darren Goldstein)—and a trio of actors: needy international star Nicole (Megan Ketch), beefcake Jake (Alex Hurt), and recent RADA graduate Lily (Jasmine Batchelor), all amid the “hurry up and wait” tempest a film set. Caxton’s terminal cancer diagnosis and Larry’s plea about the nature of positive feedback loops—in which one small change becomes a self-reinforcing snowball toward cataclysmic disaster—up the stakes as everyone tries to get the scene right, balancing artistic and scientific integrity with the demand to make a crowd-pleasing blockbuster.
Ms. Chavkin illuminates the wit of Ms. Wohl’s text, leading this superb cast of actors—transgender actor Garcia is an hilarious scene-stealer as the mostly mute PA—to deliver a suite of impressive performances in the intimacy of a black box space with immersive sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman. The layers of meaning juxtaposing the foreground action and its background significance are intelligently expressed without blunt preening or too much opacity. At once thought-provoking and hilarious, “Continuity” is everything a “political” play should be—articulating a point of view with respect for the audience while also challenging the audience, expanding worldviews, and tackling urgent questions about our existence. Opened May 21st; runs through June 9th at The Studio at Stage II - Harold and Mimi Steinberg New Play Series at New York City Center. All tickets just $35.
“Dying City” (New Play, Second Stage Theater): The specter of the Iraq War (2003) and its impact upon the men and women who served, and their families and communities, remains an all too unexamined aspect of contemporary American life, owing, no doubt, to the increasing social silos of the American experience itself. Christopher Shinn’s 2006 play “Dying City”—a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2008—examines the toll of that war through the lens of an anti-war widow and her fraught relationship with her dead husband and his identical twin-brother. Mr. Shinn, who directs this revival for Second Stage, constructs a compelling drama with a course of unfolding mysteries and memories that nonetheless is as predictable as it is uncomfortable.
This two-hander set in a spare Manhattan apartment (set by Dane Laffrey) flips between a night in July 2005 and a fateful night in June 2004 as therapist Kelly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) spends one final evening with her U.S. Army Reservist husband, Craig (Colin Woodell), before he ships off to Fort Benning on his way to Iraq. The two met as undergrads at Harvard but now find themselves at a difficult impasse in their marriage. A year later, Craig, is dead under somewhat murky circumstances—his dissertation on Faulker left unfinished. At the play’s open, his identical twin-brother, Peter (also Colin Woodell), an actor with his star on the rise, unexpectedly shows up at Kelly’s apartment door after capriciously walking out during intermission of his “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. Charming but self-centered, and as manipulative as his dead brother, Peter and the reserved Kelly haven’t spoken since Craig’s funeral, despite his reaching out. Revelations about Craig’s life and death, Kelly’s desire to move on and start over, and Peter’s own unsteady relationships slowly uncoil as the action shifts back and forth in time.
Peter and Craig find reasons to exit the stage that permit the actor playing both characters to quick-change between them and re-enter to reset the time continuum. That becomes tiresome and near-gimmicky quite fast, as do the revelations themselves, nearly none of which are surprising. That said, Mr. Woodell and Ms. Winstead deliver powerful performances of measured and precise physicality, especially Mr. Woodell as he embodies two very different brothers. The fact of the play’s exploration of the intimate and interpersonal ramifications of war is more interesting than its details, but important. Mr. Shinn’s characters are complex, as are their circumstances, and while the plot may underwhelm and plod, they remain three-dimensional, messy, mysterious, and fascinating—their lives and trauma worthy of more exploration on stage. Opened June 3rd; runs through June 30th at Second Stage Theater’s Tony Kiser Theatre. Discount Tickets.
“Nomad Motel” (New Play, Atlantic Theater Company): If you can’t judge a book by its cover, you shouldn’t judge a play by its title. The evocatively named “Nomad Motel” by Carla Ching is a draft of what might become a good play; in the meantime, the production at Atlantic Theater Company’s second stage on 16th Street is a mess of ideas in search of a gripping story and legible direction.
Set in the present amid the shiftless margins of low-rent society “somewhere in Orange County”, the play follows two poor teenagers as they navigate their unfortunate circumstances and try to imagine a better future. Alix (Molly Griggs) has lived in 13 homes in 17 years, most recently a series of motels that she, her mother (Samantha Mathis), and younger brothers (unseen) slink out of when the bill comes due. They lost their home to the bank, and Alix—an aspiring landscape architect—works as a waitress to support the family since her ill-sketched actress-mother can’t seem to find a job. Alix’s classmate, Mason (Christopher Larkin), is an undocumented Chinese immigrant, living solitary and incognito in a big house his absent gangster father (Andrew Pang) pays for from afar. Mason aspires to study music, but his stern and controlling father only sees a business path for his son.
Despite compassionate bursts of character development inspiring great pathos for our forlorn protagonists, “Nomad Motel” employs a mélange of half-baked or else far too obvious metaphors (Mason spends the play tending to a wounded bird), and several bouts of artificial and flowery speeches from different characters that share a common voice. Director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar doesn’t help with a production that never establishes a consistent atmosphere or tone, and features a clunky set. By the time (spoiler alert) Alix and Mason become roommates and lovers, we’ve exhausted dramatic conventions from gritty realism, to noir, and sitcom. There’s even a sword fight in act two. Much of the play scans as if it were written for the screen instead of the stage, particularly its closing moments in which (spoiler alert) Alix and Mason run away. Are they really running? Is it another metaphor? A sequence clearly constructed to elicit an emotional response just left me confused, as did most of this work in progress. Opened June 3rd; runs through June 23rd at Atlantic Stage 2. Tickets.