You are in a dimly lit bar, with checkered tablecloths on tiny tables. A small stage is to your left. This is where the magician will appear. The place seems made for magicians. The walls are festooned with their posters – for Houdini, certainly, but also for obscure magicians with unprepossessing names: Hermann the Great; Thurston the Magician; Brush, King of Wizards. The floor is covered with dust.
Time seems out of joint. The bar, by its decoration, seems Edwardian but the people who inhabit it, judging from the clothes, the cigarettes and the clunky phone, may be from the late seventies. These same people also seem to be unstuck in time: the man – clearly in his late fifties or early sixties – has put out a personals ad which identifies him as twenty-nine, and the woman who comes to meet him is not surprised by the white-haired man who greets her.
This is the story of Don (Michael Kramer), the aging comic magician who owns the place, and his wife Janna (Anne Kanengeiser), once a dancer. They are trying desperately to put together the pieces of their marriage, torn apart by an unforgiveable joke. To do so, they are trying to replicate the experience of their first encounter, had in response to a personals ad, and at the very place that they are now at. Henry (Spencer Trinwith), the young man who is Don’s sole employee, plays the role of the rude waiter who served them at that first blind date.
They go at the heart of their disaster from many different angles. He becomes a reporter and she plays an aggressive woman, her anger pouring out of her like water from a fire hose. She becomes a psychiatrist and he is a patient, his rage and pain struggling with his need to control it. The Personal(s) is, at bottom, a mystery play, where each vignette unspools the thread a little further until, at the end, the tragedy lays naked in front of us.
The Personal(s) is Brian Sutow’s adaptation of the Stanley Tucci movie “Blind Date”, which in turn was based on another movie by the same name by Theo Van Gogh. (See Jeffrey Walker’s fascinating interview with Sutow about how he came to take on this project.) Sutow says that the play is about laughter, and in a sense it is, but it is a sad laughter, and a heavy play. Don the magician – oddly, his act is silent, and played to vaudeville music which comes from a gramophone – has some comic tropes in his act, but he is in the end the Pierrot, the sad clown. He is this way in life, too.
Sutow, who has garnered several prestigious playwriting fellowships but does not list a full-length script in his credits, does nice work with this dialogue. His debt to Beckett is obvious, but unlike Beckett he has put his wordplay in the service of a realistic play. He has his characters speak naturally – half-completed sentences, stumbling over each other – which is always the greatest challenge for the actor. Kramer and Kanengeiser take a while to get their legs under this dialogue, but when they do, they are a pleasure to watch.
Kramer, who has performed a bevy of supporting and character roles in the D.C. area, here shows that he can carry the weight of a show on his back. His Don is at the end of his tether – for reasons that are soon apparent – but determined to control the outcome. Like any magician, he concentrates on the final result, and if he can achieve it through illusion, so much the better. Kramer is at every instant that man; his very skin seems stretched so tight that it is ready to pop, right there in the intimate spaces of the Ark. His voice conveys his tension, which rises and falls as he closes in, and moves away from, the abyss.
Kanengeiser is his polar opposite; heavy-lidded and loose-jointed, she seems to already be a ghost. She is occasionally animated by her memory of happier times, but it will soon be clear to you that while the memory may linger, the happy times have not. That Kanengeiser can do this while keeping the audience engaged is an immense credit to her skill, and the fact that Kanengeiser – a Helen Hayes Award winner in 1997 and 2000 – has gone on to New York is a great loss to us.
Closes May 18, 2013
4200 Campbell Avenue
1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Sutow added Henry to Tucci’s script – a good decision upon which Trinworth capitalizes stylishly. Henry is primarily a device which allows Don and Janna to pour out their frustrations without resorting to monologue (which would destroy the naturalistic scheme of the play), but Trinworth makes more of the character. His Henry is distinctly his own person: generous, sympathetic, light-hearted, and knowing beyond his years. He brings lift to this heavy play, and with every entrance it is as if another light is lit in the room.
It is a bold step for No Rules Theatre Company to take on a new script by a first-time playwright, even where the playwright is its own heavily-credentialed Producing Artistic Director, and the script derives from a successful movie. The risk pays off here. The Personal(s) is sobering and true, unsettling and wise, universal and personal.
The Personal(s) . Adapted by Brian Sutow from the movie “Blind Date” by Stanley Tucci, which was based on the movie “Blind Date” by Theo Van Gogh . Directed by Josh Hecht . Produced by No Rules Theatre Company . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.