“More matter and less art,” Queen Gertrude enjoined Polonius during one of his interminable dissertations. After watching Gabrielle Reisman’s Flood City, I feel ya, Your Majesty! Seldom have I seen so fine a cast, in service to a play by so gifted a writer, be put to more pointless a use. Flood City is, in a word, sodden.
It is not for lack of trying.
We begin in the aftermath of the Johnstown Flood, in 1889. Two women have been rendered homeless and are thus forced to sleep in the mud left behind by the receding waters: Val (Lolita Marie), who has lost everything (and everyone), and Stacey (Helen Hayes laureate Kari Ginsberg), who claims that her husband and children are safe with her in-laws, but as they are Methodists and thus tedious company, Stacey has not joined them. Eventually they are joined by other survivors, and some newfound caretakers: a newly commissioned National Guardsman (Jared Shamberger). A journalist from the New York Times (Carlos Saldaña). A city planner (Matty Griffiths). A Red Cross Doctor (Kerri Rambow). And a man with a pipe embedded in his brain courtesy of the wall of water which hurled itself through the steel plant where he was working (Ryan Tumulty).
They are soon engaged in their disaster recovery plan. That plan is to run a series of scams. Val and Stacey seek to sell pieces of trash as genuine flood relics to ghoulish tourists. The Times man has Stacey pose as a corpse so that he can send his readers a sensational photo. The city planner chortles with excitement over the possibility of redesigning the entire city, possibly with insurance money. But the Guardsman and the injured man, whose name is Clive, have the most explosive plan: to claim that Clive’s wound is a sign from God, and that Clive accordingly has the healer’s touch.
Intermittently, the fictive dream established by this not-quite-engaging scenario is decisively shattered. Modern language litters the dialogue (“Val” and “Stacey” aren’t typical 19th-century American names, are they?). A jukebox sits uneasily at one end of the stage. Twice, men decked out in modern steelworker’s dress sidle across the stage. About five minutes into the play, Theater Alliance Artistic Director Colin Hovde steps out to deliver some quotidian announcements, including a promise that he will issue next season’s schedule soon, and that we must silence all cell phones. Were this not Theater Alliance but some rinky-dink company, this would all be signs of a catastrophically misconceived production, but it is Theater Alliance, and we know that, for some incomprehensible reason, all this is deliberate.
But even without this frou-frou, it is hard to stay involved. We cannot root for the protagonist — whoever he or she is — to achieve an objective because we don’t know what the objective is, other than to get some sap to buy a thimble or spoon, or to hornswoggle someone into touching the pipe coming out of Clive’s head, and believing that he has been healed. The dam which burst had been privately built, and periodically a character will rail about how negligently they constructed it, so perhaps the point is to get us angry at rich dead people. (In fact, the City sued the owners of the dam for negligence, but the court ruled in favor of the owners after determining that they had done nothing wrong. Partly as a result, states passed laws applying strict liability to dam building: If you build a dam and it breaks, you’re liable whether you were negligent or not. Nowadays, the government builds most dams.)
Then it is intermission, and we go, blinking and squinting, into the relative dryness of the Anacostia Playhouse’s sun-drenched lobby. A few minutes later, and we are back in the theater. It is now 1982, and Johnstown is in the midst of a different sort of catastrophe: Bethlehem Steel, having endured several money losing years, is shutting down its plants in the Cambria area, including Johnstown. Shamberger, Saldaña and Griffiths are now steelworkers, and they are in Carol’s (Rambow) bar, drowning themselves in regret, remembrance and lite beer. Inexplicably, Clive and Val wander in, on the run from the 19th century. There, the soon-to-be-unemployed steelworkers hit upon the greatest scam yet: as Bethlehem Steel pulls out of town, Clive should lodge the worker’s compensation claim to end all worker’s compensation claims for his ninety-three year-old wound.
closes June 17, 2018
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There is more — involving a new casino and a come-to-Jesus meeting Stacey holds with the entire audience, in which she abandons her previous pretensions and calls upon us to be grateful for being alive — but I am unable to discern a point. Is it that the flood and the collapse of the U.S. steel industry are opposite sides of the same coin? (They are not; the flood bears the same relationship to the steel industry’s collapse as homicide does to death from old age). Is it that the way to survive a disaster is through effective scamming? Is it that rich people are bastards? Or that we should be grateful to be alive, even though we’ve lost everything and all who have loved us are dead? I realize that some stories have no point, and are just stories. But from that standpoint, Flood City also fails to satisfy, in that events seem to happen at random, and implausibly; and the stakes are incredibly low: will Val and Stacey be able to sell their relics? Will the National Guardsman be able to keep people without a pass out of the City? Will the steelworkers convince Clive to file a Worker’s Comp claim?
Watching Flood City reminded me of a play I saw years ago, in the Fringe — Dan Trujillo’s The Honest-to-God True Story of the Atheist. Trujillo, like Reisman, constantly subverts his narrative with bizarre asides — songs, commercials, irrelevant explanations. But Trujillo’s story is a gripping one, which becomes increasingly terrifying as it goes along. The interruptions serve to heighten tension, not dissipate it. Reisman’s story, on the other hand, never gets off the ground, and the interruptions are merely annoying.
This failure of storytelling is all the more frustrating because of the real art that goes into it. This is a first-rate cast, and Ginsburg, Tumulty and Lolita Marie are particularly effective; the dialogue is often rich and sharp and funny; and the technical is out of this world. I particularly liked Matthew M. Neilson’s sound design, which brought the sloshy world of Johnstown before the flood to front of mind in the moments before the play, and who nailed the jukebox sound with such precision that we could hear the switching of records before each play.
But art, as Queen Gertrude points out, carries little weight when the matter doesn’t matter.
Flood City, by Gabrielle Reisman, directed by Jenna Duncan, assisted by Mia Taichman, with movement directed by Jonathan David Martin . Featuring Lolita Marie, Kari Ginsburg, Ryan Tumulty, Jared Shamberger, Kerri Rambow, Carlos Saldaña, and Matty Griffiths . Scenic design by Andrew Cohen . Costume design by Kelsey Hunt . Lighting design by Max Doolittle . Sound design by Matthew M. Neilson, assisted by Evan Cook . Properties design and set dressing by Patti Kalil . Scenic charge by Kelley Rowan . Prosthetic Design by Emma Tremmel . Chris Foote is the technical director . Cindy King is the run crew . Elliot Shugoll is the master electrician . Dan Deiter is the stage manager . Produced by Theater Alliance . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.