As Spacebar opens, Kyle Sugarman’s dad (Brian Razzino, good in this) is dragging himself into Kyle’s room, carrying a neat whiskey for fortification. He looks like he is preparing himself to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a dog. He draws himself up, and then delivers an astounding monologue – shocking, howlingly funny, bitter, profoundly tragic. It is brilliant! It is too much! It’s not a monologue – it’s an audition piece!
And, sadly, it is emblematic of the play itself, which has moments so surprisingly and brilliantly funny that the audience barks with laughter, but which is, overall, too much – and too long. Playwright Michael Mitnick has found a funny device – 16-year-old Kyle’s script for a play, also called “Spacebar”, which he insists will take Broadway by storm. The problem is that Mitnick doesn’t know what to do with this device, and so it languishes before us, like overcooked beef, for two hours and ten minutes.
In a letter addressed to Broadway itself, Kyle (Jared Murray) explains his script, which by appearances is eight times the length of Hamlet. As he does so, the script plays out beside him: On a spaceship seven thousand years in the future, Captain Iditarod (Razzino) owns a bar, where he serves FutureBeer to his close friend, the profane, drunken Mortimer (Michael Saltzman). Suddenly, the beautiful cyborg Esmerelda (Kelly Hennessy) enters the bar on inline skates, pursued by Playboy, her millionaire fiancée (Josh Sticklin), driving a Segway. Esmerelda, having caught Playboy in an act which would shame Anthony Weiner, wants nothing more to do with him – which is great news for Iditarod, who has fallen for her with the force of a Vargassian Whale tumbling into a black hole. But there is a problem: dating Esmerelda may prevent Iditarod from his goal of setting a Universe record by floating buck-naked in the vacuum of space for three minutes and nine seconds, which is how he plans to raise money to see his long-lost daughter.
You see the insurmountable problem such a script presents immediately, of course. Instead of establishing the story’s dilemma and letting the story grow organically, young Kyle simply throws event after event upon his characters, giving them little time to react and thus little time to show us who they are. It is manipulative and inauthentic. Regrettably, these storytelling sins pertain to Mitnick’s Spacebar as well.
Improbably, Broadway writes back to Kyle (“how did you get this address?” it asks) and invites him to New York for a reading. Renaming himself Eugene O’Neill to enhance his marketability, Kyle goes to New York, where he runs into Fancy (Sticklin), a wealthy, ne’er-do-well cokehead who wants to produce and direct the play. Fancy soon turns it into an incomprehensible, nonsensical mess in which actors roll on the floor and speak in Czech (to help Fancy score with one of the actresses [Hennessy], who has trouble with English).
Is it absurd? Is it black humor? Well – no. It’s a tragedy which is impossible to believe. Mitnick has overlaid the story with so much misery that all the laughter is subverted. Kyle has more sorrows than Young Werther, and they weigh upon him constantly. Murray does a good job of presenting the naïve, ambitious, sixteen-year-old Kyle, but Mitnick writes him into a box. Even when his play is about to open off-Broadway; even when the high school hottie (Kristen Garaffo) is about to – well, let’s just say that Kyle’s about to get some Sugar, Man – Kyle is the picture of wilted unhappiness. This isn’t Murray’s fault, or director Jason Schlafstein’s; the text gives them no choice. To paraphrase “Roger Rabbit”, Kyle’s not sad – he’s just drawn that way.
Or let’s look at it from the other end: is this a real melodrama, to be considered soberly? It cannot be, since Mitnick subverts himself at every turn. At a crucial moment, Craig (Razzino), the actor who is playing Captain Iditarod, tells Kyle that he is a prodigy with a huge potential in theater. It is an enormously serious moment – and yet it’s nonsense; there are tens of thousands of plays like “Spacebar”, produced by mildly clever teenagers who go on to become dentists or lawyers. Likewise, the tsunami of horrible events which afflict Kyle and his family never have a chance to move us, since their reality is undermined by magical letters from streets and magical productions of nonsense scripts written by sixteen-year-olds.
Schlafstein’s production does as much as we can reasonably expect; all of the cast is at least competent, and it was fun to watch Saltzman as both the foul-mouthed, buzzed-out Mortimer and as the prissy actor who plays him. There is only so much that actors can do with a script which is sabotaging itself, however. Mitnick, a promising new playwright who has won favorable critical attention for a variety of work, said in this interview that “[y]oung Kyle considers himself the Martin Luther of the theater, but just when you think he is making a pretty decent point, he undermines himself royally.” Alas, with this piece, so does Mitnick.
Spacebar: A Broadway Play by Kyle Sugarman
By Michael Mitnick
Directed by Jason Schlafstein
Produced as 1 of 3 new full length plays being presented at Source Festival
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: Two hours ten minutes, with one intermission