When arriving at the 59E59 Theaters, my companion for this particular night of theatre asked me why I had wanted to see Snowy Owl‘s The Waiting Game, a new play by Charles Gershman (Theatre 503/UK’s Free & Proud). Embarrassingly, I had to admit I couldn’t quite remember why. There are usually one or two things that pop out for me when I read an invite to a play or a musical, something that I grab hold of and makes me pause and be curious. All it takes, generally, is one item, one name, one connection to something, and I’m purposefully trying to fit it in to my generally over-booked calendar. But that evening I wasn’t quite sure what that thing was until the moment I opened up the program. That thing was the lead actor. He is one that I had watched before, from across the room on the set for the web series, “Hunting Season” working his magic. That day, years ago, at the bequest of a good friend who was doing the casting, I found myself, like the proverbial fish out of water, sitting on a couch as an extra, being talked about by Sinoway’s character from across the room. I was uncomfortable, as I’m not a person who likes attention, but the words were kind, so of course, I thought his performance was brilliant. And I couldn’t wait to go home.
Flash forward to the day I got the press invite. The play itself sounded intriguing and well-regarded; selling out at the 59E59 Theaters’ East to Edinburgh Festival, and flying across the pond to the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe where it was called “one of the Top 5 LGBTQ Shows to see” by Huffington Post. And then I saw Sinoway’s name, so being an actor of interest, a check-in was in order, but don’t worry, I’m keeping my critical eye and mind wide open and focused on the task at hand.
As directed with a crafty focused style of tight movement and dynamic interplay by Nathan Wright (collaborated on the TEAM’s Architecting, Public theater/Under the Radar), the slow hypnotic dive into the abyss of grief and loss takes its time assembling the pieces and the game board of life and death. The four actors perform a modern ballet of some sort, setting the playing field with props on a cleverly precise and delineated set designed simply with feeling by Riw Rakkulchon (Yale Cabaret’s F*ck Her). Each of the young men glide with a grace and sense of purpose around the space, placing books here, an iPhone there, a laptop over there, and a back pack over here, leaving them for their needed play later. It feels like a game of chess has been set-up and is about to begin. When each one has taken their position, bare footed and casually dressed, they are ready to play. And with a nod to their partners, the square dance of waiting begins.
It’s a sexualized waltz of sorts, around the four corners of young desperate love and desire, with a nod to moving on from a stalemate moment of grief. There is a cyclical returning and thoughtful debating like a chess move by a grieving destructive soul who may lose the man who is his husband. Marc Sinoway (Theaterlab’s Adam Minus Josh) plays that man, Paolo, and his love, impulse, and need is the complicated tactic in the thoughtful and dynamic The Waiting Game. It’s a game of cards played by the passionate, trying with all their heart to understand where true love lives, where grief can coexist, and where other forms of love; be it guilty love, shameless love, or desperate lust, resides. It’s tragic and disturbing to witness, but enlightening and powerful to take in. It’s irrational and impulsive, but aren’t we all when the heart and the soul is at stake, and the only option is to make that move, and hope that your instinct was correct, even when the world looks on with confusion.
Sinoway portrays the struggling Paolo with deepness and clarity, delivering a complicated choreography of loss, despondency, and desperation, aching to reconnect with someone who loves him, but destructive in his actions and unconsciousness greed. He has lost his husband, Sam, gracefully embodied by the gentle moving Ibsen Santos (Group .BR’s Inside the Wild Heart), not in the exact moment of waiting, mind you, but gradually over the past few years. They are still entwined, though, with complicit denial and attachment when the stalemate of engagement is upended as Sam’s addictive secret sends him falling head first into a coma. The relationship that once was good, but as of late, dying, goes into a state of undetermined limbo and disconnected relating. Paolo is stuck, visiting and wishing to discuss what is going on, unable to see a way forward but knowing somewhere deep inside his unconscious that his next dangerous move of disconnection needs to take place. Somehow.
Filling the dark void of aloneness and solitude of grief and confusion, there is Tyler, played passionately with possibly a bit too bipolar, only in the hot and cold extremes by Julian Joseph (Miscreant Theater’s Bridesburg). He’s the young man caught in the trap of foolish love, dying to be seen and heard by the man he worships, Paolo, but unable to tantalize him away from the downward spiral of grief and guilt, accentuated by drug use and escapism. At times, this young love-struck man is illogical in his devotion, and we all see it, but if you can’t empathize with the authenticity of his desperate foolishness, then maybe you never were a twenty-something in love with the wrong man at the wrong moment in time. Tyler’s pain in his love surrender is torment-personified, and we want to warn him of the red flags that are sticking out of Paolo from all the different self-destructive edges, but he has a path that needs to be lived, and a disappointment and heartbreak that, I guess, is required of this man to go through at this junction of his road.
But it is in Geoff, played delicately with a solidness and complexity by Joshua Bouchard (Lincoln Center’s The Golden Gate), where the crisscrossing of love and death are contractual and emotionally intense. It is in the waiting room in the hospital during visiting hours where Paolo and Geoff meet, not for the first time, but in a manner that has never happened before. They have some business at hand and a combative chemistry that is strangely compelling and explosive, etched in pity, pain, compassion, love, with a dash of destruction. Geoff and Sam were in love at the moment of Sam’s almost fatal turn, in a way that leaves Paolo out of the loop, lost and angry. They need and want things from each other though, to dull their pain or maybe just to get their final needs met. It’s hard to know exactly in the meticulous manner The Waiting Game plays out their dance, and the ideas suggested by the playwright are not pieced out, explained, explored, or given, at least for our eyes to see.
But just when you are somehow putting the chaotic chess pieces in order and trying to follow this new and messy game being playing out, a “pong” registers from beyond, answering a “ping” that was tossed out with little hope of a return by Paolo. There it sits, thanks to some fine work by projection designer Kat Sullivan (Asst on Broadway’s The Terms of My Surrender), with detailed lighting design by Drew Florida (Wheelhouse’s Julius Caesar) and crisp sound design by Emma Wilk (New World Stage’s A Clockwork Orange). What are we to make of this reply, coming from the prancing figure behind the filmy back wall? It is real or a prank? A manipulation or a miracle?
The idea and configuration hang above, asking the characters one by one their opinion, just as the playwright is asking his audience to digest his brave move with whatever framework sits well in our brain. When the last card is played, it is Sam who is the winner, but I can’t say I know exactly how to take in that last tearing down of the gauze. There is community within, and a moving forward with bravery and optimism, that feels important, but the rules to that conclusion aren’t entirely tied neatly together by the time the lights go out on these four. The Waiting Game works as a study, but the conclusions aren’t exactly clear. Which I guess is what life, love, loss, and release is, in a nutshell.
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