nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
April 12, 2008
The current show on the Alchemy Theatre Company's slate is called Umbrella. Written by L. Pontius (and serving as, I believe, his off-Broadway debut) and swiftly directed in 85 minutes by Padraic Lillis, Umbrella takes its cues from Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, and Samuel Beckett's Endgame. A contemporary retelling of the former, Pontius changes Sartre's thesis, that "hell is other people," to a modernized "hell is living in a city."
On the roof of his apartment (realistically designed by Lea Umberger), Frank, a peeping Tom, and Helen, a suicidal woman who's greatest joy is burning her hands with cigarette butts and cutting her stomach to numb the pain of numbness, discuss, over and over, their individual loneliness.
Frank has rescued her from the street below, where she was screaming on the sidewalk, and brought her up to this roof, where there are two exits (they can either use the walkway downstairs or jump, which is mulled a number of times) which neither chooses to use. Paralleling Endgame, the two characters are constantly bickering, yet remain dependent upon each other for support. Helen threatens to leave a few times, Frank doesn't stop her, but she ends up staying. Does she feel a bond with this awkward, nervous gentleman? Does she feel bad for him? We don't know. A satisfactory explanation is not given, perhaps (or perhaps not) the choice of Pontius and Lillis.
There are a number of interesting moments, which start to elevate Umbrella from your traditional "unlikely relationship happens to blossom" scenario to something more. However, a great deal is just simply undeveloped. The beginning is a traditional "awkward introduction," with one word sentences, long pauses, and staged with the two characters hardly looking at each other. It's been seen before, yet, thanks to Pontius' plot, the banal clichés seem somewhat interesting.
Unfortunately, these two just aren't characters we grow to care about. They can easily pack up and leave, but they're too scared to do so, and we're reminded of that over and over. The actors, it seemed to me, are trying hard to compensate. Judson Jones (Frank) is an expert at nervous behavior, never overdoing it. Some of his facial expressions are heartbreaking, and we begin to feel compassion. But you just can't feel bad for him when he decides he won't leave his perch, despite the assurance of Helen that she'll be right there with him.
He fares better than Christa Kimlicko Jones, who seems to be still trying to figure out how to play the character of Helen. Part of the problem is that she's too frumpily dressed (costumes are by Umberger, as well).
The highlight of the production is a brief rainstorm towards the end, which showcases the striking lighting design by Sarah Sidman. This rainstorm brings out the umbrella of the title which, according to Lillis's program note, "allows the characters to imagine a different reality." The theatre, too, offers a "thin tissue of protection," so we can take a moment and imagine that we are in a different reality, as well.
But loneliness is something many people feel every day. There is no different reality that we can escape to, and that doesn't work in the play's favor. Pontius is trying to emphasize the fact that loneliness is the root of all evil and is, in a big city, inescapable—and he reiterates it numerous times. There's an attempt at salvation, right at the very end, but the transition is too bizarre and jarring for it to be effective. I think that with a bit of dramaturgical help, the Alchemy Theatre Company could have a profound piece on their hands. It's just not there yet.