I love a good storm party. You know the type, especially if you have lived through a winter in New York City. I must admit though, as Hurricane Florence approaches and threatens the Carolinas, that we are blessed, generally speaking, with not having to deal with the yearly horror of hurricanes baring down on our shoreline. Hurricane Sandy was really bad, to say the least, and I was lucky in that the worst I had to deal with was being evacuated from the Fire Island house that I had rented for the week and return to my safe Clinton Hill apartment. The blackout of 2006 was a strange surreal experience, but a moment that brought neighbors who were strangers together in impromptu outdoor BBQs and picnics on the dark streets of New York City. For us New Yorkers, it usually is more in the snow storm front that we have the opportunity to gather, stock up on groceries, amass wine and beer in order to hunker down for the duration, looking out our windows as the snow accumulates and the cold wind blows. It can be quite intense and exciting. Ultimately, we don’t fear for our lives so much, just worry or rejoice that tomorrow we might not have to go to work or to school, just stay indoors with our friends in the warmth of our living rooms. I do remember those two experiences with exacting detail though, so watching both The Collective NY’s Hurricane Party by David Thigpen (resident writer and company member), at the Cherry Lane Theatre just days before I saw New Light Theater Project’s Meaningful Conversation, a new play by Owen Panettieri about the 2006 NY blackout currently playing at A.R.T./New York Theatres new space on West 53rd Street, was a memory-inducing few nights of theatre, drawing back episodes of interaction and drama that I hadn’t thought about in years.
I have always believed that gathering together when a figurative or literal storm is approaching is pretty much part of humanity, but in these two plays they approach the subject from differing angles; one is about distraction and avoidance while the other is more about the attempt to connect and engage. The first scene in the solidly Southern Hurricane Party, a play that feels more relevant than ever thanks to Florence, is definitely about connecting, most rambunctiously, in mutual physical attraction. Macon, played with a solidly real worn edge by Sayra Player (Mint Theatre’s Sexual Healing) is desperately trying to find some kindness and attachment in her troubled home with the hamster-eyed Dana, played sweetly by the appealing Kevin Kane (NYTW’s Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me). But it’s not as warm and cozy as it all seems, as it soon becomes glaringly obvious that Macon is married to someone quite different; the loud and aggressive Todd, played with a great degree of depth and authenticity by Michael Abbot Jr. (A24’s “The Death of Dick Long“), a man whose obnoxiousness might be coming from something darker and more pain driven then we would ever imagine. Dana on the other side has a kind if somewhat needy wife of his own by the name of Caroline, played with a fascinating erraticness by Booker Garrett (Comedy Central’s ‘Inside Amy Schumer‘) who has one big secret of her own to unload. So with that well structured set-up, all the ingredients are now in place for a show down when the four come together for their own category V Hurricane Party.
Sounds like a dark and stormy party all set to blow the roof off. Add to the fire a ton of alcohol, some strong winds, pouring rain, a missing dachshund, and a wacky store clerk named Tabby (Lacy Marie Meyer) who shows up in the middle of it all with her oddly engaged girlfriend, Jade (Toni Lachelle Pollitt), and all we have to do is wait for the waters to rise. The storm is brewing strong inside that house, strongly designed by Frank J. Oliva (lighting: Miriam Nilofa Crowe; sound: Eric Glauber; costumes: Louise Ingalls Sturges), and might just be as toxic and dangerous as the one slowly drawing nearer and nearer to their home. Strongly and chaotically directed by Maria Dizzia (Amios’ The Loneliest Number), all the actors are given plenty of creative chances to rain and shine within their moments of expressive and explosive engagements. The only problem lies in the unfocused tracking of the storm by playwright David Thigpen (Hogtied) in the moment to moment impulses. He has created, together with his excellent cast, inner world dynamics that are intrigueing and dramatic but lack directive outcomes and collisions with deeper meaning. The scene between Meyer’s Tabby and Player’s Macon is delicious and flirty in a way that is entirely unexpected, but what does it all mean in the end. Is she merely a device to light the fire or an integral co-conspirator? Their slang is strong and sexy, creating an anticipatory excitement for this wild young character to show up as the basically uninvited guest. I expected her to bring fuel to the fire, as she did, but I wasn’t expecting her companion. Pollitt’s Jade, as written, never really seems of use to the party and to the overarching desperation of these scared souls, and beyond being some sort of harbinger of the oncoming waters, she remains an unneeded 6th wheel in a storm happening both outside and in.
Uptown, playwright Owen Panettieri (Vestments of the Gods) throws us a different version of a similarly themed party, when we dive with a strong sense of purpose into the darkness of the 2006 black-out in New York one hot summer’s night. Directed with a slightly messy but intriguing dynamic by Anaïs Kolivisto, Meaningful Conversation attempts to dissect the intimate interactions that a blackout, much like a hurricane, erupts upon when two strangers who are also neighbors reveal more about themselves than they ever wanted. It’s a fun and playful interactive game of spit, at first, where the revelations given are deeper and more raw than what the game was supposed to grant, giving away secrets that might have been better kept in the dark. The ramifications are rekindled and set ablaze years later when a neighboring domestic dispute draws this pair back together, and with the help (or unconscious hinderance) of a few more newly aquatinted strangers, an unforeseen bit of defiance is unbridled. No wonder David is afraid of fire.
Stumbling in the dark, exhausted and overheated, the good pseudo-boy scout, David, played handsomely by the sculpted Denver Milord (59E59’s Terms of Endearment) turns on his battery lanterns, strips down in the heat of his apartment, ready to crash after a long night interacting with neighbors he had never met before. He’s going to get through this, he is told, when a neighboring stranger pops up outside his window offering Meaningful Conversation, company, and a taste of melting ice cream. At first David seems uncomfortable, rightly so, but Nat, played with an aggressive inquisitiveness by Bethany Geraghty (NLTP’s Strange Country) climbs in to David’s life and pretty much doesn’t take no for an answer. She successfully overturns his plans for a solitary night of newly singled lonely-boy sleep by utilizing his own politeness against him. She definitely is one of those ladies I would generally back away from when confronted at a block party, even during a black-out, but she finds a way in like a pesky 12-Stepping mouse desperate to peel back the layers of David’s persona. She unleashes his boyish sense of play and his puppy dog sense of adventure and construction, while digging into the darkness of her own intense stories with a much too open-book display of pain and suffering. She has it right in many ways though, David doesn’t want to be on his own, fearing the quiet aloneness of the blacked out room just as much as Nat is afraid of her own darker demons unraveling before her eyes. The connective tissue though never really feels strong enough for us to believe that David really wants to keep the conversation going and the inappropriate inquisition alive. Why he indulges this complicated older woman is never quite clear, although she challenges his fears and somehow fires up his libido in a way that never really rings true. All this, despite their never ending verbiage and flirtations when things start to spiral into awkwardness.
As written, the uncomfortable pauses, transitions, and the attempts for continuation are all mapped out in the darkness for these two strangers to track as they try to get to know one another for some unknown reason. But the pacing never really gives them room to breath in order to make it feel authentic, and it feels as forced as the building of their dream fort. They both work so hard to remain together, upright, and intact, more because of the script says so, rather than the twisted sheets that bind. The writing throughout is peppered with clarity and intensity, while being overwrought with incidentals and side notes. It peters out and dwindles away leaving us at intermission wondering just how meaningful their conversation truly was.
Only once the power returns and the lights flick back on, two years later, does the overarching interactive engagement right itself. David wakes in the middle of the night to phantom noises coming from another apartment somewhere close by. Startled next to him is the easily unnerved Lydia, played strongly by the lovely Bertha Leal (Juggerknot’s Amparo). She manages, quite impressively to really find the essence in the Meaningful Conversation. Her “Rear Window” engagement with David, the wired and anxious Nat, and two policemen by the name of Martinez and Vardokas (SJ Hannah, John-Peter Cruz) who are called in by David, does this theatrical piece justice. With a fairly well thought out scenic design by Matthew S. Crane, simple but pure costumes by Hahnji Jang, dynamic lighting by Christina Tang, and sound by Andy Evan Cohen that beautifully emphasize the paper thin walls that inspire neighborly eavesdropping, Meaningful Conversation drives forward with a frantic uneven pace that leaves us scratching our head. It’s overly wordy and not very precise in its motivation, wasting the interaction with the policemen by giving us too much casual talk and non-specific dialogue. It leaves us feeling confused as to the purpose and the meaning behind the Meaningful Conversation spoken. The arguing couple behind the wall disappear into the darkness leaving the desperate to deal with their personal demons as presented, even though they aren’t as carefully crafted as one would hope. It’s telling that all the females seem highly emotional and hysterical compared to the emotionally composed David and the two male policemen. Even when David has his overwrought tantrum, he still manages to compose himself in a matter of minutes, leaving us sitting in the dark wondering what kind of storm just passed us by.
It’s odd, I think, that in the same week that Hurricane Florence is creeping closer and closer to the coast of the Carolines in real time, these two plays look deep into the eye of the storm, focusing their gaze on the desperation for connection. There also happens to be a third play opening this week, swirling around the comforting idea of friends gathering together against an approaching storm; Agnes written by Catya McMullen and directed by Jenna Worsham, which will open this week at the 59E59 Theaters. This play, one that I will post my review in the coming days, focuses its hurricane pathway on the night when the innocent adult man, Charlie returns home to his worried sister from a mysterious journey of attempted discovery. That same night, a hurricane is approaching, and an old friend arrives out of the blue. The people that matter the most find themselves trapped together by a storm, forcing them to get in touch with their vulnerability and assumptions in a way that is gloriously profound. Agnes also digs deep into our limited understanding of Asperger’s and how a grown man with Asperger’s will still strive for human connection and understand, even when it seems impossible. Surviving any of these deadly storms of human interactions, one can only hope that there is some form of understanding once the darkness, rain, and wind subside. Meaningful Conversation and Hurricane Party do a pretty good job surviving the rain and the darkness, but both need a better understanding of themselves and those around them so the two will survive and flourish.