When we are young we do not hide our naked souls from the Godlike scrutiny of our parents, so we do not lie about our thinking. We lie only about our acts. Since we are all sinners, our acts are shameful, but honest confession before our parents brings relief, and redemption. But as we grow older we develop thoughts of our own, and these thoughts we keep deeply hidden, lest the family be destroyed.
Two generations ago, the child of believing parents might come to doubt the existence of God, or worse, His good intentions. She might pass the days in sullen silence, aware that if she voices her doubts the response will be rage, punishment — even banishment. And so she begins her life as a liar, singing the hymns she now finds ridiculous, or absurd, and dreaming of a time when she can be her true self.
And so it is here, except that the shoe is on the other foot. In Carly Mensch’s Oblivion, Julie (Ruthie Rado), bright (6 As and 2 Bs, according to the report card on the refrigerator) and athletic (all-Ivy as a basketball player) has fallen prey to religious feelings, a fact she must keep hidden from her mother Pam (Mindy Shaw), a dogmatic atheist.
And also from her dad, the let-it-all-hang-out Dixon (Zach Brewster-Geisz). Notwithstanding Dixon’s hipster mien (he smokes dope with Julie’s best friend) and his defense of Julie against her mom’s more aggressive tropes, she suspects he is the enemy, or at least sleeping with the enemy.
About that best friend: his name is Bernard (Jonathan Frye), and he is a Korean-American who has an obsession with film, and more specifically, with the great film critic Pauline Kael. He is an aspiring filmmaker, and his subject is Julie. As for Julie, she looks to Bernard to help her discover the emotional worlds that, so far, is remote from her.
closes August 6, 2017
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Mensch’s play is, on the surface, about lies and secrets. But more deeply it is about being the child in relationships, and thus being obliged to sneak your true self around. Dixon, for example, was once a corporate lawyer but now, after a breakdown, hangs around the house, smokes dope, intermittently works on a novel, and apologizes repeatedly to Pam.
Pam, who works at HBO, has thus become the One Who Must Be Appeased, and her ability to define righteousness and dole out shame suits her rigid personality. (Am I the only responsible one here? she asks, one way or another, throughout the play, half in rage and half in satisfaction). Dixon may be a hopeless case; in the second Act he makes an act of self-abnegation which I found shocking, in atonement for hiding something from Pam’s judgment.
But the play really isn’t about Dixon, as interesting as Brewster-Geisz makes him. It’s about that moment, difficult for every parent, when the child becomes her own person, formed by her own experience and personality.
Oblivion does the job, slowly and tentatively, as it is done in real life. The work is assisted by first-class performances. Brewster-Geisz is as good as I’ve ever seen him, particularly when Dixon is at his most incomprehensible (such as when he tries to invoke Nietzsche to convince Julie of the errors of her ways). Rado occasionally resorts to familiar gestures to convey her character’s rebellion and newfound contempt for her parents, but much of her performance is fresh and nuanced. Shaw’s Pam is instantly unsympathetic, but the actor never sells out the character, and by the end you can respect and understand her, if not love her. And although much of Bernard’s presence in this play seems to be of little purpose (except for a colossal joke toward the end of the play) Frye makes him touchingly human, a young man of impeccable ethics who is nonetheless confused by the world and his role in it.
The technical is good, too, especially Kristen Jepperson’s set, which makes the smallish stage a convincing Smart Person’s home, upper-middle-class New York division. The place is festooned with books (the most conspicuous of which is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which Dixon takes with him when he sees his daughter’s basketball game) and pictures of the family. The most recent of these shows Dixon and Pam smiling, with Julie scowling in the foreground. If you’ve ever had a teenaged child, I bet you have a picture like that somewhere in your house too.
So: pretty good play, good production, and there are problems. The first of these is that the play has, like, a zillion scenes, each separated by a blackout and many of these blackouts featuring a set change. This is fine for TV (Mensch’s background is in TV; she is a writer for Weeds and Nurse Jackie) but notso hotso for the stage. Unexpected Stage does a good job of making the set changes in short order, but when they happen so frequently, it is hard to maintain the fictive dream. Soon you are anticipating a blackout every time a character slings a zinger, and at that point your attention is on the production, rather than the story. The story has to struggle to win you back.
This is Unexpected’s first venture at the Fireside Room at the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation Building, and I must say that the space, though very pretty, is sub-optimal for theater. There are about forty seats arrayed on either side of the room; the action takes place in the middle. There appears to be no backstage, so that frequently characters, and furniture, go in and out of the same doors from which the audience enters. Again, Unexpected does a good job of minimizing the disruption — Director Christopher Goodrich has obviously thought this staging through — but their frequency is an enemy to the story’s effectiveness.
These cavils aside, Unexpected Stage does good work with an interesting play, and it is an — can we say it otherwise? — an unexpected pleasure to see such good work from actors who are not exactly household names.
Oblivion by Carly Mensch, directed by Christopher Goodrich . Featuring Zach Brewster-Geisz, Jonathan Frye, Ruthie Radow and Mindy Shaw . Set design: Kristen Jepperson . Lighting design: Andrew Dodge . Sound design: Matthew Mills . Props master: John Barbee . Stage manager: Jessica Lucey, assisted by Natalie Murray . Produced by Unexpected Stage Company . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
NOTE: Ms. Rado reviewed some Fringe shows for DC Theatre Scene a couple of years ago. This has not affected my review of this play or her work in it.