nytheatre.com review by Alyssa Simon
April 24, 2008
All is not as it appears in the beginning of Bordertown, which is a great way to write a play. It is full of surprises and no one is who you think they are. Situations arise that one would never guess. Even the location, a diner on the Calexico border in the middle of nowhere, may be just that or a metaphor for something richer; an in-between place, maybe purgatory or the emotional no man's land we may all find ourselves in before we find the answer or it finds us. This makes Bordertown exciting and compelling to watch. Reviewing it, however, presents a real challenge. I don't want to give anything away by writing too much about the plot. Okay, here goes.
At the top, Sedona, a waitress, and Wyatt, a busboy at the diner, are playing with a tarot deck. Wyatt, who is in love with Sedona, has picked the Death card at random three times. Here is the start of where things may be one thing or another or both sides of the same coin. The Death card does not necessarily mean death. It means change. A death of old ways and the birth of new. Wyatt, however, is convinced his literal death is near.
Meanwhile, at the next table, an older man, Hank, asks each of them and everyone else who enters the diner afterwards, "Are you... him?" Now we have two things to figure out. Who is going to die, if anyone, and who is "him"? The fearful and monumental seriousness with T.D. White as Hank asks the question gives you the feeling that "him" may be indeed "Him"—but who is he asking for, God or the Devil? And why?
Next, George, the owner of the diner, comes barreling in, cursing his employees for neglecting their one customer, but his anger and worry seem over the top and misplaced for what must be a common occurrence. So, what's his problem? Why is he so upset? We find out when Little Mick enters. He's on a mission from his gangster boss to get George to pay up his gambling debts, $20,000 worth, by midnight. This improbable situation is followed by a seemingly normal one. Two guys wander in, Miles and Otto, looking to get out of the rain, flirt with Sedona and order some sweet potato pie.
Not so fast. What follows is even more improbable than before. Just when you think the whole plot is going to be about how George will come up with the money, everything changes. Add to the cast of characters policewoman Becky Sexton, one of the lesser defined characters but nonetheless marvelously played by Marta Kuerston; Meter Guy, a guy who, well, is there to check the meters (or is he?); and a Woman in White, a beautiful ghost who haunts the diner every night—and I just happily gave up trying to figure out where it was all going and simply enjoyed the ride. Oh yeah, there's also a killer tornado about to strike with the diner (now with the "N" and the "R" letters blown out so the outside sign spells "DIE") as ground zero.
Playwright Steve Ives's language is often heightened and poetic, befitting the extreme circumstances. There are also funny bits, low humor shtick and vaudevillian style jokes. The combination of styles reminds me of Tom Robbins's loony mysticism. Here's what fascinated me and gives me such respect for the director Tom Berger. Instead of trying to manage such an array of language and plot twists with a singular heightened acting and directing style, he trusts his actors to be fully committed to their characters and intentions. The poeticism—for example, comparing humans to angels with only one wing—is spoken naturally and beautifully. You get the sadness and loveliness of the thought because there is nothing "acted" on top of it.
Andrew Schecter as Miles, particularly excels in getting across abstract emotion that can only be spoken as poetry with wonderful comic timing. Michael Kingsbaker's portrayal of Little Mick, on the other hand, is complete and excellent clown work. I believed them both and that they both inhabited the same world. The cast as a whole is great, I'm just singling out Schecter and Kingsbaker because I've never seen such disparate styles work so well on stage to tell one story. Olivia Baseman as The Woman in White, adds another layer of tenderness in offering redemption to Wyatt without being "ghostly."
The play works. It seemed a bit slow at times and in my opinion could benefit from a little cutting, but I saw it on opening night. I'm sure it will tighten up as the run progresses. Bordertown is well worth seeing.