“It’s a good day”

And Van Jones from CNN – a brave man who allows himself to be emotional on national broadcast – is here to tell you why:

“Wild” [Streaming] at Quantum Theatre

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This past summer, my colleague Kyle Haden and I led a small “think tank” at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama aimed at exploring the landscape of live performance in the age of Covid-19. The research questions we posed to the student participants in the course were relatively straightforward: what’s “out there” in the world of remote and digital live performance, what’s working well, why does it work well when it does, and what tools and techniques need to be mastered in order to make compelling and captivating live performance for remote or socially distanced performers and audiences?

After viewing dozens of online performances and experiments, our students compiled a digital “white paper” of the results of their research, which ranged from recommendations regarding content and rehearsal strategies to a deep dive into available recording and streaming platforms to an imagined “Covid” season for many of our local theaters. You’re welcome to view the results of their work, but the TL;DR take-home of our collective survey of the summer landscape was something that will now likely seem all too obvious: the most successful live-streamed (or pre-recorded and streamed) projects had two things in common. First, they were delivered in relatively short segments (thirty minutes was the sweet spot; forty-five the outer limit). And second, they achieved a logical and necessary integration between form and content; that is, the works that were most satisfying to experience were works that contained within their world an explanation as to why the audience member might be viewing them on a screen.

The example we all kept pointing to as the bar-setter was a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull directed by Eleanor Bishop, a CMU Drama directing alum, and produced by the Auckland Theatre Company (and recently made available again in four 30-minute segments for viewing – which I highly recommend!) Back in the early summer, at a time when many theater companies and performers were attempting to replicate the experience of live theater by putting actors into dialogue with each other across Zoom boxes – and asking us viewers to suspend our disbelief and imagine that the characters were occupying the same physical space – Bishop’s adaptation accepted Zoom as a governing condition of the characters’ pandemic-bound lives, and forged Chekhovian comedy and pathos out of their (and our) current given circumstances. What made Bishop’s reboot compelling was that the video capture of live dialogue and action made sense in the world of the play; it was not haunted, as so many online reproductions of plays have been, by the IRL theatrical conditions we can no longer enjoy.

With its new production of Mike Bartlett’s play Wild, the collaborative team at Quantum Theatre has crafted a similarly successful integration of form and content. The setting for the play is a Moscow hotel room where Andrew (Chris Cattell) – a fictionalized Edward Snowden – has taken refuge after he has released damaging information showing that the US government has been spying on its own citizens. Two mysterious agents, who may or may not belong to an organization affiliated with a Julian Assange-esque man that Andrew seeks to be connected with, visit his room: a British Woman (played by Lydia Gibson), and an American Man (played by Wali Jamal). The hotel room (designed with a keen eye for Soviet-holdover detail by Kelsey Garrett) bristles with hidden Russian surveillance cameras that provide us with multiple views into the cat-and-mouse game that these two play with Andrew as they try to recruit him to trust – and eventually join – them. As such, the answer to the question, “why are we watching this on a screen?” is clear and logical: because “we” are cast in the role of some nameless Russian agent monitoring what unfolds in this claustrophobic space.

Lydia Gibson in WILD, photo by Heather Mull Photography, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

This conceit works exceedingly well: it serves not only to ratchet up the tension of the play but also to lend it an aesthetically compelling and moody visual style (Hannah Kerman’s lighting design produces an effect that makes color seem like it’s almost black-and-white). Director Sam Turich uses both camera angle and actor movement to keep the visual field dynamic, and part of the fun of the production lies in playing the game of figuring out how he and production director Hank Bullington have managed to pull off the show’s technical tricks. I’ll confess that I steered more attention than I probably should have into trying to figure out a) whether the actors were in the same room together (they were: Gibson and Cattell are a couple in real life who can safely be in close proximity to each other, while Jamal maintains a safe social distance from his scene partners throughout), and b) where all of the hidden cameras are (I think I found about half).

The choice to set this play into a situation of surveillance also helped to add frisson to a script that does not fully congeal, at least not for me. Too much of the narrative suspense revolves around the withheld mystery of the two visitors’ identities and agendas, and some of the events (for example, a scene in which the Woman offers to “prove” that she’s trustworthy) require us to accept at face value that a man who could hack the US national security system is otherwise a hapless dupe.

Yet toward the end, when the Woman smugly observes that the information that Andrew has leaked to the American public has been met with a “big shrug,” the play’s sociopolitical stakes suddenly and strikingly rear into view. We’re reminded of Andrew’s real-life model, Edward Snowden; of the enormous (and in his mind heroic) personal sacrifice he made in his attempt to call attention to our government’s surveillance overreach; and of how rapidly outrage over that revelation seems to have faded from public consciousness.

Wild suggests in the end that our capacity for outrage and shock has been numbed by disinformation and distraction. The next two weeks may test that proposition. Let’s hope we don’t get there. Vote.

Manual Cinema’s “Frankenstein” at City Theatre’s Drive-In at Hazelwood Green

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Mary Shelley is said to have invented the genre of science fiction with Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, a novel she wrote in response to a competition proposed by Lord Byron during a cold summer she and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley spent at Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva. Her novel combines elements from the epistolary novel, the gothic romance, and the ghost story to extrapolate the impact of her protagonist Dr. Frankenstein’s quest to use his scientific knowledge to bring dead matter to life.

Chicago-based arts collective Manual Cinema has likewise invented its own genre of performance, blending handmade shadow puppetry, cinematic techniques, and live actors and music to create complex and multilayered stories that take place simultaneously on stage and screen. When this company normally performs its work, a team of artists and musicians create a mixed-media experience live before an audience, using vintage overhead projectors, puppets, actors, live feed cameras, and a roving music ensemble (an event, I imagine, somewhat akin to the “live radio play” of Bricolage’s Midnight Radio series, but an order of magnitude or two above that in cognitive complexity). Alas, patrons at City Theatre’s Drive-In will need to imagine what that genre-bending experience is like from the less layered – but no less emotionally and aesthetically satisfying – pre-recorded version of Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein on screen at Hazelwood Green until October 17.

If you have ever read Shelley’s novel – and if you haven’t, Reader, you should! – you know that one of its primary conflicts revolves around Frankenstein’s revulsion over, and subsequent abandonment of, his Creature, and also that a large segment of the novel sympathetically offers insight into the Creature’s anguish at having been left to fend for himself by his maker. There are obvious religious and existential motifs at work here, but what Manual Cinema’s adaptation leans into is the connection between the story and Mary Shelley’s own biological and artistic creations. The film begins with an extended prologue that shows the birth and death of Shelley’s infant daughter Clara, and it’s this loss that frames and haunts the story of Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein, making her novel at once a working-out of the burden of responsibility she may have felt at losing her infant, and a substitute child itself for the grieving artist-mother. The fact that the same actor (Sarah Fornace) plays both Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein underscores the bind this adaptation seeks to forge between these two creators who are tormented by what they have brought into the world.

While this biographical framing adds fresh depth and poignancy to the story of Frankenstein and his Creature, what makes it spellbinding is the magical means through which Manual Cinema tells the story. Haunting, dream-like scenes flow seamlessly back and forth between two-dimensional silhouette paper cutouts, live actors in shadow play, live actors on film, and three-dimensional puppets, all accompanied by perfectly timed live music performed on the stage next to the projection screen (the musicians are Peter Ferry, Jason Gresl, Deirdre Huckabay, and Erica Miller).

The visual storytelling is lyrical and poetic, condensing exquisitely rendered sequences of images into a powerful emotional punch. You might find yourself puzzling, as I did, over how some of the effects were achieved, particularly where the image blends live actors and shadow puppets. At the same time, I’ll confess that part of me was also relieved that I could focus on the gorgeous and eloquent filmed “product” without the lure of wanting to also watch the “process.” Let’s hope that in some Covid-19-free future the ‘burgh will have a chance to host this ingenious collective of artists so that we can witness their technical wizardry live; in the meantime, this film version of Frankenstein is an October treat that’s not to be missed.

“Drive in Arts Festival” at City Theatre

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Dear Reader!

It’s been far too many months since your trusty Tatler sent those two words to your email inbox!

We all know what’s to blame for that sad state of affairs: the last time I had the great good fortune to attend a live performance here in the ‘burgh was the opening night of Cry it Out at City Theatre – in early March, a week before the pandemic cancelled life as we once knew it – and since then (like, no doubt, most of you) what live performance I’ve been able to “attend” has primarily been streamed through my laptop screen.

But I’m here to tell you that honest-to-god live, three-dimensional, humans-sharing-the-same-general-space performance is back (!), thanks to City Theatre’s plucky efforts to find a safe way to put audiences in front of artists once again.

This past weekend saw the opening of the “Drive-In Arts Festival” in Hazelwood. Imagine a mashup between an open air music festival and a drive-in movie and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the setup in the parking lot of Mill 19 at Hazelwood Green. When you pull into the lot, attendants direct you to park in a carefully staggered arrangement that affords each vehicle a view of both a small stage and an adjacent large screen. You tune your car radio to a designated frequency, and the live performance on stage is piped into your car as you watch the performance on stage, screen, or both. Applause and affirmation – in the form of flashing lights and honking horns – is strongly encouraged; jumper cables are on hand to help out those whose enthusiasms exceed their vehicle battery life.

A wide range of programming is on offer, some of it more readily adaptable to the spectators-in-cars scenario than others. Friday night was an evening of “epic comedy” presented by the Drinking Partners, featuring comedians Samantha Bentley, Marcus Cox, Brittany Alexis, and Ed Bailey, all of whom had some great material but seemed (understandably) a bit thrown off balance when their jokes were greeted with loud horn honks in lieu of laughter and applause (a couple of them wove the weirdness of the honking into their routine).

I’d imagine that musicians – especially those who have experience performing in studio without audience feedback – would find the prospect of playing to rows of cars a bit less off-putting. Certainly, the programming on Saturday and Sunday night supported that assumption. Saturday evening gave us a high-energy, politically charged set of original music and poetry by artist/activists A’Leighsha, Said, Jasiri X, Nairobi, and Vic Muthama of 1Hood Media. Sunday brought together, for the first time in six months, three small ensembles from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra: a string quartet playing two pieces by Mozart; a string quintet performing the gorgeous “Tango Suite” by Astor Piazzolla; and a flute ensemble playing pieces by Grieg, Mendelssohn, Fauré, and Rimsky Korsakov. The classical music was bookended by sensual dance videos featuring James Gilmer, Pearlann Porter, and slowdanger, and by a series of solo dance performances by Texture Ballet members Alexandra Tiso, Madeline Kendall, Katie Miller, Rachel Harman, and Kelsey Bartman.

Watching live performance from inside a car is close-but-no-rubber-cookie to being at an actual live event; I could wish that City Theatre made provision to allocate a section of the parking lot in front of the stage to properly masked and socially-distanced patrons sitting on blankets or folding chairs, who could react with human noise to the performance. This might also make it possible for prospective audience members who don’t own or have access to a vehicle to enjoy the festival. That said, while it’s not exactly encouraged, many patrons (your Tatler included) are bringing folding chairs, donning their masks, and enjoying the show al fresco. Pro tip: arrive early (before 7) if you want a spot in the first couple of rows, and bring a picnic to occupy the extra time.

The festival continues, with additional offerings of a range of music, until the end of the month.

“Cry It Out” at City Theatre

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There are likely as many ways to relate to Molly Smith Metzler’s play Cry It Out as there are ways to react as a parent – and particularly as a mother – to the birth of one’s first child.

The play revolves around the unlikely friendship that blossoms between Lina (Julianne Avolio) and Jessie (Sarah Goeke), two women who have little in common other than the fence that separates their backyards and the fact that both are pretty much homebound with newborns. Lina works an entry-level job in hospital administration; Jessie is a lawyer on track to become partner at a Manhattan law firm. But although class divides these two women, the stir-crazy isolation of new motherhood pulls them together for coffee and contact. Tethered via video baby monitors to the young tyrants who now dominate their time and attention, Lina and Jessie snatch precious moments of sane conversation in the narrow zone of Jessie’s backyard that remains in signal range of each of their nurseries.

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L to R: Julianne Avolio and Sarah Goeke. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

I love this device as a metaphor for the play’s interest in exploring the emotional tug-of-war between the autonomous “pre-baby” self and the on-demand “post-baby” one that early motherhood pitches many women into: hungry as they are for adult conversation, and exhausted and irritated as they are by the nonstop demands of infant care, neither of the women can, nor wishes to, resist the pull of her baby’s need for her. Thus the women soon find they have another thing in common: both are reluctant to return to work and leave baby in the care of others when their maternity leave is over (although here, importantly, class and privilege overdetermine both the choice of whether to go back to work and the practical ramifications of finding suitable child care arrangements).

The intrusion into this cozy friendship comes in the form of Mitchell (Tim McGeever), a neighbor from the wealthy enclave sited on the hill above who thinks there is something deeply wrong with his own wife, Adrienne (Rebecca Hirota), who has also recently had a baby and is withdrawn and isolated. It turns out, however, that she is not suffering from anything but frustration and anger: unlike Jessie and Lina, Adrienne wants nothing more than to get back to her career and her creative life after having a baby, and she is chafing under social expectations that she sacrifice her time and energy wholly to motherhood.

Metzler is exploring uncharted dramatic territory here: I cannot think of another play that trains a keen and sympathetic eye on the nether zone of identity shift that new parenthood represents. She seems particularly attuned to the way becoming a parent can shift one’s expectations and reorient priorities, bringing a character like Jessie, for example, to the realization that she’d rather stay at home with her child than return to her career. Such unexpected transformations are the stuff of poignant drama, and Goeke makes palpable her character’s dawning recognition of her changed desires and needs. Metzler is particularly good on the details of the mother/baby bond: at one point Jessie describes her baby taking a pause from nursing “just to flirt, really,” a line that struck such a chord of recognition that I swear I started to feel the tingly sensation of a milk letdown, even though it’s been over sixteen years since I last nursed a baby.  Yet I could have wished that the play did not stack the deck quite so much against Adrienne’s reaction to becoming a mother: I suspect I am not the only audience member who can relate most to her attitude (I, too, was quite ready to get back to work that I loved after too many months cooped up with a baby!), and I found it off-putting that she comes off as so cold, strident, self-involved, overly privileged, and a bit off her rocker.

Nevertheless, Metzler’s writing is both funny and touching, and the City Theatre production, under Kim Weild’s unfussy direction, captures the wide and sometimes unexpected range of emotions that flare up as the characters navigate their own personal journeys into that new identity of parenthood, journeys that are directly or indirectly shaped by class, family dynamics, and social pressures (the latter three represented visually in Anne Mundell’s striking scenic design by the row of lit houses looking down on the action from above). In particular, Julianne Avolio gives a brilliant performance as Lina: by turns tough, acerbic, generous, and vulnerable, she traverses an emotional arc that is in the end both brave and quite moving. While all of the characters in the play are torn between a life of work outside the home and the need to care for a child within, for Lina – the character with the least privilege and the least choice – that conflict is particularly acute. In limning both the differences and similarities between Lina and the other three characters, Metzler shows herself once again to be an astute observer of class divisions and reminds us how utterly imbricated the personal is with the political.

“The Last Word by Quentin Crisp”

Kitted out in a lavender gauze scarf, flashy gold embroidered shirt, and bejeweled lapel pins, actor Brian Edward brings Quentin Crisp’s wittily aphoristic autobiography to life in his one-man show The Last Word by Quentin Crisp. The world-premiere performance, which is adapted by Edward and Phillip Ward from Ward’s book of the same name and directed by Spencer Whale, draws on interviews with and writings by Crisp himself before his death in 1999 at the age of 91, and offers a glimpse into both Crisp’s own idiosyncratic life philosophy and the history of what it was like to live as a genderqueer individual in the twentieth century.

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Brian Edward as Quentin Crisp. Photo by Anna Patsch, courtesy Brian Edward.

The first half of the solo performance recreates material from Crisp’s own one-man solo show An Evening with Quentin Crisp, in which Crisp shares advice and instruction on how to “create a lifestyle,” complete with pithy Wildean bon-mots and plenty of namechecking iconic avatars of style like Andy Warhol, Eva Peron, Elizabeth Taylor, and Mohammad Ali. Scattered throughout are ironic “messages of hope” along the lines of “never sweep the place where you live because after the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.” Impersonating Crisp at his coyest, Edward drips with the mixture of sly humor, flamboyant iconoclasm, and acerbic cynicism that made Crisp a sought-after dinner companion/performer.

But as the second half of the performance makes clear, Crisp was also a lightning rod throughout his life, drawing a mix of accolades and disdain from both the conventional and queer communities (his controversial dismissal of AIDS as a “fad” and description of homosexuality as a “disease” rightly enraged the latter). After the intermission comes the “frightening part of the program”: Crisp, at 90, looks back on a life lived on the isolating margins of both communities and realizes, all too late, that he has never been gay, but rather a woman – and that he would have been most happy had he had the opportunity to transition when young and live life quietly as the (female) owner of a country wool shop.

That image may be what is most sobering and surprising about The Last Word by Quentin Crisp: it’s hard to imagine this oversized, extroverted personality finding contentment as the dowdy, reclusive owner of a knitting establishment. Where The Last Word intrigues most is where it opens the door for contemplation of similar contradictions, as, for example, when Crisp claims, on the one hand, to find value primarily in people while, on the other, demolishing conventional ideas about love and commitment; or when he seeks to draw a distinction between himself and Oscar Wilde while all too strikingly putting his similarities with Wilde on display.

Perhaps most valuably, the peek this performance provides into the vicissitudes of queer life in the twentieth century vividly spotlights how rapidly the discourse around gender nonconformity has evolved – for the better – since Crisp’s death in 1999. The Last Word renders visible the sea change in the social and legal status of LGBTQ+ folks in the last few decades, and makes clear that despite all of the work that has yet to be done, history is moving in the right direction.

“Little Shop of Horrors” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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There’s no way Artistic Director Marya Sea Kaminski could possibly have predicted that the impeachment trial would coincide with the Pittsburgh Public Theater run of Little Shop of Horrors. But holey moley! I can’t think of a more apropos commentary on the really big shop of horrors that is the GOP-controlled Senate than this horror-comedy rock musical about a hapless schmuck who nurtures and accommodates an evil, carnivorous plant until it becomes too powerful to contain.

Dear Reader, I know you’re a smart cookie so I won’t belabor the point and connect the dots further; besides, don’t you just want to bury your head in the sand right about now and pretend that the real-life monster just a few hours down the interstate hasn’t already grown too big to destroy? Well, luckily for all of us, Kaminski’s production of Little Shop of Horrors is so eye-poppingly gorgeous and beautifully crafted that you might – just might – be able to suspend your dread and anxiety for a couple of hours and forget that the show presents a near-perfect allegory for our present-day nightmare.

Philippe Arroyo as Seymour; photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

The musical tells the story of Seymour (Philippe Arroyo), who helps save the dying floral shop he works at when he discovers an unusual plant that draws in curious customers. He names the plant Audrey II after his co-worker Audrey (Lauren Marcus), on whom he has a secret crush; she, however, is in an abusive relationship with Orin (Patrick Cannon), a sadistic dentist. Seymour quickly discovers that his plant is not only carnivorous, but also that it will only eat human flesh; the Mephistopheles-like Audrey II (voiced by Monteze Freeland and animated by J. Alex Noble) uses promises of fortune, fame, and power to lead Seymour down a slippery-slope of moral compromises and rationalizations that ends with the destruction of everything he holds dear (wait, did I mention that this is a near-perfect allegory for the death of our democracy?)

Tragic as the plot is, the whole is delivered with a camp-cartoon aesthetic. Tim Mackabee’s scenic design is dominated by the exterior of a building with rows of windows that pop and bop in vibrant technicolor to the beat of the music (lighting design by Robert J. Aguilar). The building also serves as a projection surface for Bryce Cutler’s ingenious media design, which at some times has the surface crawling and writhing with images, and at others provides atmospheric effects like lightning and rain. Set, lights, and projection work in animated concert to ensure that the world of the play – like the monstrous plant it brings to life – feels alive and in motion; indeed, at times it feels as if the set itself is dancing to the energetic music along with the characters on stage (the excellent orchestra is conducted by Catie Brown; music direction by John McDaniel). In their riot of pattern and color, Susan Tsu’s detail-perfect costumes match the vivid rhythm of the scenery, lights, and media, while at the same time offering witty commentary on the characters and nudging them towards caricature. Kaminski takes full advantage of this team’s spectacular design with her energetic direction of the show, keeping the stage in motion from number to number with impeccable timing and a keen instinct for visual and physical humor.

L to R: Melessie Clark, Abigail Stephenson and Tavia Riveé; photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

The performances in this production are equally spectacular. Setting the tone for the show from the very top is a high-energy, big-attitude trio of street-smart girls named  Ronnette (Melessie Clark), Chiffon (Abigail Stephenson), and Crystal (Tavia Riveé); serving as a kind of brassy Greek chorus to the action, they channel the Motown girl groups that their names suggest with gorgeous tight harmonies. Marcus brings a Betty Boop-esque quality to her portrayal of Audrey that gives the character a nice quality of daffy sweetness, and Marc Moritz, as the floral shop owner Mr. Mushnik, is a suitably kvetching old Jew (the score itself contains a number of musical jokes; among them the klezmer send-up “Mushnik and Son” that features Moritz in a witty moment of davening). Freeland’s voice work as the bloodthirsty plant is stunning, particularly when you consider that he coordinates his performance with puppeteer Noble from an isolated room in the theater’s basement. But the standout performances in this production are Arroyo as Seymour and Cannon as Orin. Both actors bring an astonishing and delightful physicality to their roles, embodying the emotional extremes of their characters with a mixture of precision and abandon. Their total investment in the physicalization of their characters has a paradoxical effect, simultaneously enhancing the cartoonish tone of the show and adding dimension and depth to their individual characters. The scene in which Seymour visits Orin at his dental practice is a masterpiece of physical comedy that proves the rule about how high the stakes need to be for comedy to work; I also won’t soon forget Arroyo’s unbridled embodiment of Seymour’s indecision in the temptation number “The Meek Shall Inherit.”

L to R: Lauren Marcus and Patrick Cannon; photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

That scene, in fact, is where the mostly comic Little Shop delivers its serious insight into the psychology of accommodation. Seymour knows he has a diabolical monster on his hands, but it’s a monster that will help him achieve his goals, and his ambition causes him to lose sight of his principles and abandon his moral compass. He only realizes too late that he is just as dispensable as the rest of Audrey II’s victims. Sound familiar? There’s really only one solution, but I fear that – as in the play – in real life the advice comes far too late: “Don’t feed the plant!”

“Downstairs” at City Theatre

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In Jungian psychology, the house symbolizes the mind, with the basement representing the deepest part of the subconciousness. As in the physical world, that psychic basement is a place crammed with all the “stuff” you can’t or won’t let go of – stuff you might need one day, or no longer need but aren’t ready to discard – along with all sorts of stuff you use regularly but don’t want to make space for “upstairs.” It’s a place of memories, and also a place that is a bit dark and scary; you never know what you might find when you start digging around down there. Were the psychic house a globe from the 16th century, the basement might bear the warning: “Here be demons.”

In Theresa Rebeck’s play Downstairs, the demons that occupy her characters’ psychic cellars are the main subject of interest, so – fittingly – she sets her action in a cluttered, junk-filled basement. Teddy (Martin Giles) has taken up residence in the downstairs of the home of his older sister Irene (Helena Ruoti) and her husband Gerry (John Shepard), claiming the need for “a haven…a life raft” from vaguely described conflicts at his workplace. It becomes quickly clear that Teddy is not particularly high-functioning: pill bottles on the nightstand next to the sofa he’s using for a bed suggest that his psychological coherence depends on medication, and a rambling story about being poisoned at work hints that he may not always be fully in touch with reality. But he is intelligent and has the kind of keen insight into other people’s motives and feelings that is often characteristic of people who seem “crazy.” Perhaps for that very reason, his presence in the basement is an irritation to Gerry, and this puts Irene in a bind: she doesn’t want to evict her brother, but she also doesn’t want to make her domineering husband angry. That’s the conflict at the heart of this keenly observed play: Teddy wants to stay, Gerry wants him out, and Irene is caught in the middle.

Rebeck musters a great deal of suspense out of this straightforward conflict, primarily through a slow reveal of the extent to which all three characters are psychologically damaged. Teddy’s mental instability is most evident, stemming in part from having suffered physical abuse from their psychotic mother. Irene seems, on the surface, to be more together, but she confesses to feeling overwhelmed by simple tasks like mailing a package and harassed and hated by her own clothes. And while Gerry prides himself on being a “normal” guy who – alone of the trio – can successfully navigate the world of rules and jobs and norms, as the action unfolds we come to learn that the basement of his psyche is by far the scariest place in the play.

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L to R: Martin Giles and Helena Ruoti. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

The first ten minutes or so of the production at City Theatre had me worried – Giles opens the play with a comedically ostentatious silent opening sequence that is at odds with the fourth-wall realism Rebeck’s script calls for, and it seemed to take a few exchanges of dialogue before he and Ruoti fully locked into character. But once they did, the brother-sister relationship, with all its complexities, conflicts, anguishes, and fathomless bonds, blossomed into life. The character of Teddy could be rather unlikeable – he’s something of a social loser, blunt, combative, and at times barely comprehensible – but Giles gives him a vulnerability and softness that has you rooting for him. It’s not hard to believe, from the way Giles limns the character, that he was once Irene’s beloved baby brother. As Irene, Ruoti conveys a profound sadness and despair underneath her character’s flighty irresolution, and she makes the character’s need for connection palpable. John Shepard’s Gerry ratchets up the tension of the play a hundredfold with his entrance on the scene: seeming at first to be merely a meanspirited bully, by end of the play it’s clear that he represents the kind of sociopath who rises to power in all sorts of situations by dint of his capacity to hide his inner lunacy behind a calm, cool façade of social normalcy.

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L to R: John Shepard and Martin Giles. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

Director Marc Masterson shapes the arc of the play with a sure hand, and with the help of Steve Shapiro’s strange and ominous sound design he builds a gripping tension that gets gratifyingly released at the climax of the action (at the play’s “ah-ha!” moment, a patron behind me hissed “Yes!”). The storytelling is marred, however, by a small but significant bit of staging that inadvertently introduces an implausibility into the world of the play: when Gerry first comes down the stairs, he catches Teddy monkeying around with a supposedly “broken” old computer that Gerry keeps in the basement. But Gerry evinces no curiosity or anxiety about what is on the screen in front of him, even though the information that Teddy has just pulled up becomes a key plot point (and major concern for Gerry) later in the play. Given what we later find out about that information, his insouciance regarding the computer in this moment is puzzlingly out of character.

But let’s get back to where we started: the junk we all keep in our basements, both actual and psychic. Tony Ferrieri’s reproduction of a suburban basement is detail-perfect, down to the wood-slatted laundry cage hanging from the ceiling and an old tire stashed behind the stairs. Yet, oddly, it’s impossible to puzzle out the floor plan of the imagined house above, given the location of the door to the ground floor. I initially thought this must be a mistake, but the more I consider it, the more it seems of a piece with Rebeck’s sensitive and perceptive rendering of the relationship between the darker recesses of the mind and the presentation of a coherent self. Like Ferrieri’s imagined house, the architecture of the mind is never as logical or discernible as we would wish it to be, and Rebeck’s play is a cautionary tale about the demons that dwell beneath even the most orderly-seeming abodes.