It’s been more than a day since I left Before the Fall, and I still don’t know for sure that I can say what I think about it. That’s a crummy thing for a theater critic to admit, but I’m hoping to get points for honesty.
I’ll set the scene. Before the Fall is an original work by Patrick Hamilton. Hamilton both wrote the play and stars as Frank, a young man with his sights set primarily on meeting women and making money, not necessarily in that order. He arrives to a normal day at work alongside colleague Hannah (Brett Molik), where their boss Stewart (Daniel Neusom) is stressing about a make-or-break presentation they’re set to deliver.
That’s when they hear the explosion, and it’s also the point at which we learn this is a play about three individuals at the top of the Twin Towers on 9/11.
At least, that’s my interpretation. I should note that it’s not one shared by the author. Hamilton in fact told DC Theater Scene that “Before the Fall takes place on 9/11, but it’s not really about 9/11.”
I contend this is a very difficult thing to accomplish, and Before the Fall misses the mark.
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First, the good. It’s a perfectly fine play, with strong dialogue and commendable acting. Hamilton is a believably cocky young businessman. Brett Molik is rock-solid as Hannah throughout. And Daniel Neusom in particular finds his footing in a moving conversation with his wife.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. There’s some odd direction, for example when Stewart sits at his desk and patiently listens to a terse conversation between Frank and Hannah (as opposed to looking out the window, pacing, or doing any of the things we all might do if faced with this situation).
The sound engineering could likewise use a little work, with phones that (repeatedly) ring long after they’ve been answered, at a volume that rivals the crashing airplane, but that’s a small point.
There’s a lot packed in to this hour-long play. We learn a lot about this trio of colleagues in a short amount of time, giving the audience plenty to grab on to.
So far, so good. The problem with Before the Fall is the emotional core around which it’s built.
Anyone who isn’t moved by the events of 9/11 – including fictional victims we are asked to imagine in that position — is missing a part of their humanity. Hamilton in fact told DC Theater Scene that a friend tried to warn him off writing this play because it’s “taboo for too many people,” but I beg to differ.
Before the Fall closes July 27, 2019 at Capital Fringe 2019. Details and tickets
IMDB lists 38 movies about 9/11. Wikipedia lists over 160 songs about 9/11. And yes – Playbill lists 13 plays that have been written about 9/11 (this one not among them, so clearly there are others). If it’s taboo to talk about 9/11, the world has gotten mighty brave (and considering two of those songs were written by Toby Keith, let’s not bother entertaining the notion).
So yes, Before the Fall has emotional punch, but I’m not convinced it’s because of anything that happened on stage.
If this is a show about what we see inside ourselves when we stare our own mortality, it could have just as well have been set in any number of other settings. I can’t point to what Before the Fall says about the events of 9/11 that’s different or more important than the hundreds of plays, songs or movies that came before it. And if the answer is ‘that’s not the point,’ then why set it on 9/11 at all?
I would challenge the playwright – a clearly committed writer – to consider why he chose 9/11 for the backdrop. There will be patrons who enjoy Before the Fall and are moved to say as much. The London Free Press said it’s “an important piece of theatre that courageously explores a dark moment of history.”
Fine. If, however, patrons came to see the show based on a description of the play that doesn’t even mention 9/11, they might walk away feeling like Before the Fall takes advantage of the emotional connection we all share to an American tragedy. I certainly did.
The events of 9/11 deserve a fresh angle or a deeper exploration if they’re going to be invoked. Before the Fall just scratches the surface.