Written by Jordan G. Teicher for THE ARTISTS FORUM MAGAZINE
Edited by Amos White V for THE ARTISTS FORUM, INC
Photos: Hunter Canning
3.5 out of 5 stars
SET IN THE LIVING ROOM OF A SMALL TOWN AMERICAN PLAY
NEW YORK, NY (March 6, 2013) It starts in a rehearsal room, a group of actors sitting around a table reading aloud the script of Set in the Living Room of a Small Town American Play.
While it’s not immediately obvious what dramatic rewards the scenario will deliver in this show by the same name, this much is clear: this will be a play about ideas – specifically, ideas about theater. Indeed, the pleasures in Jaclyn Backhaus’ ambitious new work developed for the Theater Reconstruction Ensemble are most often cerebral. But for those willing to make the intellectual journey, the destination is a rewarding one.
The play’s exploration of 1930’s and 40’s realism remains it’s core interest. But eventually, an equally compelling case is made for our investment in the Lorimer‘s, a post-war American family in the tradition of the Loman‘s with dashed dreams and skeletons in the closet – many of which come to the forefront when a prodigal son returns from college in the wake of a terrible accident.
It takes a while to get there. Initially, we’re treated to a send-off of some of the styles and characters of this era, skewered with a wink and a nod by a competent cast. Sydney Matthews is spot-on as an over-the-top teenager. Nick Lehane is disquieting as a jealous best friend. And Backhaus herself gives a by turns uproarious and sympathetic performance as the religious zealot next door.
Director John Kurzynowski, meanwhile, playfully explores the freedoms afforded by a pseudo staged reading. Actors deliver lines with seemingly little regard to where they are on stage and maintain only fleeting loyalty to stage directions. The effect is a direct challenge to the tenets of realism.
But gradually this conceit – with the exception of the ever-present stage directions – unravels. The set transforms as a carpet rolls out, and an armchair and a couch replace folding chairs. Actors abandon their scripts and the fourth wall, in effect, re-fortifies. Suddenly, we’re watching an authentic realist drama.
Perhaps influenced by their increasingly material environment, cardboard characters begin to breathe. And as an audience, we start to become emotionally invested, not merely amused by their exploits. It’s straight out of Genesis; Backhaus blows life into clay.
But, as it strives to hit every convention in the realist canon, the piece sometimes struggles under its own weight. As a result, several subplots – a romance between a visiting foreigner and a Lorimer daughter, a business partner’s betrayal, and even the accident that sets the play in motion – and more than one of the dozen characters get lost in the fray. And a pitfall, we realize, of paying tribute to classic themes is that their familiarity threatens to disinterest.
Though it may tackle a bit too much, it’s a risk worth taking for a production ultimately able to dissect this most important age in American theater with intelligence and heart.
Set in the Living Room of a Small Town American Play ends Friday 3/9 at Walkerspace: 46 Walker Street, New York, NY 10013